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Can Being Distracted Be a Good Thing?

Yes. That’s the answer. Easy? Well, not exactly. The only way distraction is good is if we train ourselves to pay attention to it.

Here’s why: Because of what cognitive neuroscientists call “attention blindness,” we can focus very well. Our whole learning process from infancy on is telling us how to focus on what those around us deem important, and then that process becomes automatic. For example, under normal situations, I don’t think about the word I’m going to utter next. I have been practicing for uttering that next word even in the womb. Babies hear at around the sixth month of gestation, and they are already hearing the vocal patterns of those around them in utero. We know from some great recent work done with German and French newborns that babies come into this world uttering a cry in the up or down language inflection of their mothers and others around them.

However, in certain situations, those “reflexes” no longer serve us. If you have to learn a second language as an adult, you realize how long it took, how much constant practice from infancy, to learn the one you speak automatically. If you are a victim of a neurological episode, such as a stroke that damages the speech center of the brain, you know how hard it is to make new neural pathways so that you can speak again. Or if you were fortunate to have learned that second language, it is quite possible that you will lose your ability to speak in your birth language, but can still speak the second, learned language. We learn a second language in a different part of the brain and can rely on that if the first is damaged. Columbia University neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern even recommends adult language learning as a “back up plan” that can assist us as we age, in case our language centers are impaired.

Now, why is distraction our friend? Because if we respect distraction to that which we normally perceive as “automatic,” then it allows us to think about why that action was automatic and why it isn’t now. Is something disturbing happening in our life that we should be attending to? (Ask insurance adjusters and they will say texting while driving is, of course, bad—but if you really want to prevent accidents, don’t drive after a rotten day in divorce court or after getting a pink slip at your job or when you have a headache: Heartache and heartburn—emotional and physical upsets—are far more distracting than what technology throws at us). Is your workplace set up badly? Have you not thought up ways to help you sort the information streaming at you unsorted? Do you need better systems? Or maybe you are working too long. Twenty minutes without a refresher is pretty optimal.

Linguist George Lakoff says we need to be “reflective about our reflexes.” That is, those things we take for granted and do automatically leave us vulnerable to our habits. Distraction helps make our habits—including those that no longer serve us—visible to ourselves. We cannot begin to change them until we see them. That’s the lesson of attention blindness. If all we see is what we do automatically, it is almost impossible for us to change, to find a better way. Distraction is our friend—as long as we school ourselves to pay attention to it.

Cathy Davidson is the author of the new book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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