Posts Tagged ‘Larry Rosen’

Modifying Behavior

September 24, 2017

This is the final chapter in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. This final chapter is devoted to providing advice on modifying behavior to reduce distractions and to improve the performance of your mind,

Here are the questions Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen say we should ask ourselves:

How might I increase my metacognitive view of how my own mind performs in a given situation, and in what ways are my actions not in line with how I should behave based on my goals and an understanding of my situation, and in what ways are my actions not in line with how I should behave based on my goals and an understanding of my limitations?
How might I change my physical environment to reduce accessibility of potential distractors?
How might I assess whether I am self-interrupting because of boredom, and how might I make the task more interesting to stave off boredom?
How might I recognize when my actions are driven by anxiety about missing out on something in my virtual world, and what steps can I take to reduce the anxiety?

McGill University professor Daniel Levitan urges people to check electronic communications at certain times during the day.. More specifically he writes, “If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. You social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day. Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’ve been doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to live your email program off than to ear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Something none of these writers address, at least in this volume, are the social ramifications of your change in behavior. It is advisable to discuss what you’ve learned in this book and that you are determined to deal constructively with a destructive mind. Your should encourage your friends to alter their habits. After all, they will benefit also. Somehow the rudeness of disrupting a social interaction to respond to an alert or message became acceptable. In point of fact, it is rude. The person is saying, wait, this is probably more important than you. Also dinners should be for eating and for conversing with others at the table. Participants who are not physically present have not earned the right to participate.

There is a question as to how best inaugurate these changes in behavior. First, notify your friends as discussed above, so they will not become angry with you. Then the question is whether you should ease into these behaviors of adopt them cold turkey. The latter might be more difficult, but it is easier to explain yourself to your friends. Also your agony should be shorter, if not more severe, at least initially.

The chapter also includes some ideas based on research studies for planning restorative, stress-reducing breaks, each of which will take only a few minutes.

*Exercise—even for only twelve minutes—facilitates brain function and improves attention.
*Train your eyes using the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes take a twenty second break and focus on objects twenty feet away. This changes your focal distance from inches to many feet and requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to constant attention.
*Expose yourself to nature. Consider using at least part of your break to get away from technology and spend a few minutes in a natural setting. Research has shown that just ten minutes in a natural environment can be restorative; even viewing pictures of nature can be restorative.
*Daydreaming, staring into space, doodling on paper, or any activity that takes you away from performing a specific task activates the “default mode network”—a network of interacting brain areas that most often indicate that you are daydreaming, thinking creatively, or just mind wandering—which is restorative for attention.
*Short ten-minute naps have been shown to improve cognitive function. Longer naps work, too as seen in a study of pilots who improved their reaction time after taking a thirty-minute nap.
*Talking to other human beings, face to face or even on the telephone, reduces stress and has been shown to improve work performance.
*Laugh! Read a joke book, look at comic strips, read a funny blog. A Loma Linda University study found that older adults who watched a funny video scored better on memory tests and showed reduced cortisol and increased endorphins and dopamine, meaning less stress and more energy and positive feelings.
*Grab something to drink and a small snack.
*Read a chapter in a fiction book. Recent research shows major brain shifts when reading immersive fiction.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Boosting Control

September 23, 2017

Boosting Control is the penultimate chapter in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. It begins with this quote from the father of American psychology, William James: “And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

Gazzaley and Rosen begin by discussing traditional education. They note that the most widely implemented approach is the current system of didactic classroom instruction delivered by a teacher lecturing to a group of students. They write, “Although this long-established, globally adopted, traditional education system varies in its details by geography and historic time period, a common feature is the emphasis on rote memorization via formalized and structured lessons follow by assessments of attained knowledge using formalized testing.“ They note that there seems to be a tension between this traditional model that has largely focused on the delivery of information content and the goal of developing core information-processing abilities of the brain. They do not believe that the objectives of an education system should be directed solely at the transfer of content to young minds. They argue that it is also critical that developing minds build strong cognitive control abilities that allow them to engage flexibly in dynamic and challenging environments. They state that even alternative educational systems that aim to foster real world outcomes may not be developing cognitive control capabilities. There is convincing evidence that superior cognitive control is associated with successful academic performance, but that little is known about whether traditional education actually builds the fundamental information-processing abilities of our brains that underlie cognitive control. They raise the question of whether traditional education is truly an effective form of cognitive enhancement that has the power minimize our control limitations. Put simply, does the current education system help the young Distracted Mind?

The authors point to the Tools of the Mind program developed by psychologists Elana Bodrova and Deborah Leong. It is based on theories and insights into how a system of activities can be designed to boost cognitive control. More details can be found at
The authors also see the need to think increasingly about education as a lifelong process; we have the potential to enhance our cognitive control at any age. “Educational programs across the lifespan directed at boosting and maintaining cognitive control should be the rule, not the exception.” Healthy memory blog readers should recognize this as being in step with the philosophy of the healthy memory blog.

In the section on meditation the authors write, “Accumulating evidence convinces us that there is a strong signal that meditation engineers improvements in cognitive control, and of course there are many reasons beyond improvements in cognitive control, and of course theater are many reasons beyond that encourage us to recommend engagement in mindfulness practices. They caveat this by stating that many studies have methodological limitations. These methodological limitations and the reasons for not being concerned about them were discussed in the immediately preceding post, “The Somewhat Tarnished Gold Standard.” HM believes that meditation is the best means of increasing attentional and cognitive control. Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about meditation and the benefits of meditation.

There is a section on cognitive exercise (brain games). On the whole, this review is quite favorable. Different games are effective to differential degrees so it is helpful to do some research on specific games. However, HM warns against using these as a prevention to dementia. Although they might help, memory health is a matter of a commitment to cognitive growth, a healthy lifestyle, and meditation. The same point can be made with respect to video games. They can be helpful, but they do not provide a 100% solution.

There are obvious activities that should not be overlooked. There is a theory that contends that interactions with nature can be beneficial. This theory is called attention restoration theory (ART). In 2007, thirty-eight University of Michigan students, armed with a map and tracked by GPS, tool a one-hour walk through either a tree-lined arboretum or a traffic-heady urban center. Before and after these walks they performed a working memory test. A 2008 paper described a significant improvement in their working memory performance after the nature walk, but not after the urban walk. Similar beneficial effects of nature exposure have been shown to occur in children with ADHD and young adults with depression, and amazingly even in response to just viewing nature pictures. In this context, readers might want to review the healthy memory blog post “Awe.”

There is also much data documenting the benefits of physical exercise. This does increase oxygen to the brain, which is definitely beneficial. However, HM also recommends mental exercise that is accomplished by invoking System 2 processing through lifelong learning, meditation, and other activities that have been reviewed.

The authors also review neurofeedback. HM argues that these same benefits and more can be achieved through meditation absent the neurofeedback hookups.

There is a category of healthy memory posts titled Mnemonic Techniques. These are specific techniques for improving memory. Additionally they provide a means of cognitive exercise that enhances memory health. Try some of them. You also should read “Moonwalking with Einstein” to learn what can be accomplished using these techniques.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a cure or preventative vaccine for Alzheimer’s or dementia (See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimers). However, following the activities in the healthy memory blog could well increase the likelihood that you will die without experiencing any of the physical or cognitive symptom’s even if you die with the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque that are the defining feature of the disease.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




The Somewhat Tarnished Gold Standard

September 22, 2017

This post is exclusively HM’s. It is being introduced here before the final two posts on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The final two posts provide guidance on how to cope with the distracted mind. The authors do a well-intentioned but naive review of research and attempt to rank methods with respect to their level of confidence. This post provides some background for understanding research results and conclusions that should be generally valuable.

Randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies called randomized controlled trials or RCTs are the Gold Standard for research. This is a good standard to employ when it is feasible. But it is not always feasible, and attempts to apply it can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Here is an example where the Gold Standard was applied with no adverse consequences. This was the test of the Salk Vaccine for polio. HM was in the second grade at this time. Some test participants were given the Salk Vaccine and others were given a placebo. HM did not know whether he had been given the vaccine or a placebo, nor did the people administering the vaccine. We were assigned randomly, there were placebo controls, and the people administering did not know if we were being given the vaccine or the placebo (number were assigned to identify the conditions, but the administrators did not know what the numbers meant.

Now suppose participants assigned themselves. Here everything falls apart and valid interpretations are not possible.

Now suppose the Gold Standard was employed, but negative results, no evidence that the vaccine worked, were achieved. Does this allow the conclusion that the vaccine does not work? In statistics, you cannot prove a negative. The procedure is to decide to reject the null hypothesis with a certain degree of confidence. It is conceivable that the dose was too small. Another test might be warranted using larger doses.

Suppose the test involved a medication that was self-administered, and the Gold Standard was rigorously applied. What could possibly confound the results? Well the question is how well did the participants self-administer the medication? Differences in the results could be the result of an artifact caused by their being differences in adherence to self administration in the two groups.

The efficacy of meditation has been tested. HM has been pleasantly surprised by the positive results when the training was short and the training period fairly limited. In a study in which a group instructed to meditate is compared to a group instructed to do something else, there is the following possible problem: if participants have been randomly assigned to the groups, some who have been assigned to the meditation group might not believe in meditation and have a negative attitude to training and the entire project. This is different from RCTs in which the participants are passive and the treatment is administered to them.
When HM was a graduate student there was a hotly contested debate regarding whether humans could learn to control their autonomic nervous systems. HM thought this was ridiculous as there were practitioners of certain religions, Buddhism for example, who were able to control their heart rates and reduce them to frighteningly low levels. So HM thought the issue was resolved. But research was being done at colleges in which students were given biofeedback and examined as to whether they could learn to control their heart rates. Since this research failed, these researchers effectively accepted the null hypothesis, and ignored evidence from the millions of humans who were effective controlling their autonomic nervous systems.

HM is a strong advocate of mindfulness meditation. This increases the control of our attentional processes, which gives us increased control of our mind and emotions. The research question is not whether it works, but how much meditation of different types is useful. There is more than ample research indicating the benefits of the relaxation response discussed in healthy memory blogs.

So for RCTs to yield valid results, the experimental design and sample sizes should be adequate. Research participant compliance is another issue. Moreover, there is a much more important issue to which the research community at large has yet to consider. This issue comes from epigenetics: it is not just genes, but what is read out from the genes that is important. Nurture affects what is read out from the gene, so two individuals with identical genes can differ in how these genes are expressed. So identical twins can differ radically. One outstanding example involved two identical twin sisters. One was popular and a successful student. The other was socially withdrawn and a poor student. These twins were raised in the same family. Medications for people with identical genes could still have different effects. So under what conditions, are RCTs are still applicable? Herbert I. Weinberg has raised this issue in his book, “Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty.”

Yet another factor for consideration is the distinction between between near and far conclusions. Practically all results and conclusions should be regarded as near studies. Studies showing the cognitive benefits of games provide a useful example. If cognitive tests reveal a difference between people playing games and people who don’t, one can only make conclusions about these immediate benefits. Conclusions about the far effects of these games, say in the prevention of dementia, are questionable extrapolations. How long do these games have to be played? These conclusions await further research.

Now there are good data (see the healthymemory blog post “Cognitive Activity and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease”) indicating that cognitive activity helps build cognitive reserve which reduces the risk of dementia. Now the brain is always active, even when we sleep. So the question is what types of cognitive activity? HM has strongly argued that effortful processing, what Kahneman terms System 2 processing.

HM is mildly depressed when physical activity is emphasized, and cognitive activity relatively ignored. Sure physical activity is beneficial along with living a healthy lifestyle. But a main effect of physical activity is to increase oxygen flow to the brain. However effortful System 2 processing, activates many pathways in the brain and creates new links. Practically all learning initially involves System 2 processing, and as long as different and new ideas are being considered or new material is being learned, more pathways are activated and new links are made. HM argues it is this that enables the overcoming of the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health

September 21, 2017

This is the twelfth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A study performed by Dr. Rosen’s lab of 1,143 teens, young adults, and adults assessed symptoms of psychiatric disorders, daily media and technology use, preference for multitasking, anxiety about missing out on technology use, and technology-related attitudes. Symptoms of psychiatric disorders were predicted by some combination of daily technology use and preference for multitasking even after factoring out the impact of anxiety about missing out on technology and technology-related attitudes.

Another study from Dr. Rosen’s lab led by Dr. Nancy Cheever investigated the effect that technology use, or rather, lack of use, has on anxiety. 163 college students were brought into a lecture hall, with half being told to turn off their phone and store it and all other materials under their seat while remaining quiet and simply doing nothing. The other half of the students were given the same general instructions about storing materials out of sight and doing nothing, but they had their smartphones taken away and replaced with a claim check for later retrieval. 10 minutes later and then twice more during the hour—plus session, each student completed a paper and pencil measure of anxiety. The prediction was that the students holding a claim check for their phone would become anxious, and they did, but no more so than students whose phone was turned off and stored under the desk. They found that the heaviest users of their smartphones—those who were younger and grew up with technology—showed increased anxiety after just ten minutes of not being able to use their phone, and their anxiety continue to increase across the hour as compared to those who used their phone less.

Once we fall asleep, our brain activity goes through four phases from light sleep to deep sleep, which is followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that signifies we re dreaming. In a normal night’s sleep, this process repeats four times, with REM sleep getting longer as the night wears on. During sleep the brain performs a variety of housekeep chores that are called “synaptic rejuvenation” including pruning and memory consolidation. This serves to remove unimportant connections and enhance important ones. Moreover, our nighttime brain flushed out toxins tat are by-products of daytime neural activity, which if not removed can have deleterious effects on neurons in the brain.

Photopigment cells in the retina at the back of our eyes help control the release of melatonin. To produce white light, technology screens must emit light at multiple wavelengths, including blue short wavelengths. The photopigment cells signal our brains that it is time to be alert when exposed to blue light. So using technology in the bedroom right before sleep, we are bombarding our eyes with blue light that signals awake time rather than red light that signals it is time to go to sleep. Moreover, blue light is far stronger when one is looking at a small screen held close to the face.

Meta analysis of sixty-seven studies of the impact of screen time on children and adolescents found that screen time, particularly in the last hour prior to sleep, is related to sleep problems, primarily resulting in fewer nightly hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality. Studies have shown that 46% of college students awaken at night to answer text messages, and 40% awaken to answer phone calls, resulting in 46 minutes less nightly sleep. The authors conclude, “With the vast majority of teens using a variety of technologies prior to sleep as well as awakening during the night to address smartphone alerts, it is like that their brains are not getting the nightly housekeeping that was previously mentioned, which can lead to mental difficulties.

A study of more than 2,000 fourth and seventh graders found that children who slept near a small screen device had nearly 21 minutes less sleep than those children who did not sleep in close proximity to a phone or tablet, and those who slept in a room with a television set reported 18 fewer nightly minutes of sleep.

Additional research in Dr. Rosen’s lab using a series of measurement tools to assess sleep quality, executive functioning, anxiety about missing out on electronic communications, and daily smartphone use discovered four paths to a predicted poor night’s sleep. Poorer executive functioning (the ability to make good decisions) predicted both more smartphone use, and poorer sleep quality and anxiety about missing out predicted more smartphone use and more nighttime awakenings both leading to poorer sleep. So the authors conclude that “both our ability to make smart nighttime choices as wall as our anxiety about what we might miss out in our virtual worlds during sleep combine to disrupt our sleep, which then leads to poorer thinking skills and more nighttime interruptions. This is indeed a downward spiral that results in disrupted mental functioning.”

Some research has examined the impact of sleep duration and quality for workplace adults. One study of US managers and employees found that those who used their smartphones for work at night after 9 p.m. showed impaired cognitive control at work the following day, which was reflected in reduced attention to work and increased depletion of working memory resources. A study of Belgian adults found that having the Internet in the bedroom resulted in similar negative effects in cognitive control.

So disrupting sleep further disrupts the distracted mind.



September 20, 2017

This is the eleventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There have been several posts on the deleterious effects of technology on relationships. To find some of these enter (Turkle) in the search block of the healthy memory blog. Turkle sums up her view on the negative impact that technology has on our attention and our important relationships by saying, “As we distribute ourselves we may abandon ourselves.” Regarding parenting she says, “Young people must contend with distracted parents who with their Blackberries and cell phones may be physical present but ‘mentally elsewhere.’” See the healthy memory blog posts “Cyber Babies” and “Frankenstein and the Little Girl” for more on this topic.

HM marvels that when he attends professional conventions, for which the ostensible purpose is to have scholars travel to a spot and gather together, but finds them sitting alone or in groups working their smartphones. During a lecture a considerable number in the audience will be playing with their smartphones.

Parents take their children to the park only to spend the entire time reacting to alerts and notifications on their phones instead of engaging with their children in all-important free-play activities. Spouses who once watched television together and discussed what they saw and learned, now use a second screen while they attempt to divide their attention among their tablet, phone, or laptop, the content on the televisions, and their loved one. Evidence is starting to indicate that our relationships with each may be one peril of our distracted minds. A 2014 Pew Internet & American Life project report found that one in four cell phone owners in marriage felt that “their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together.

Most have experienced dinner where the table is littered with smartphones. A game has been created called “cellphone stack” where everyone at the table places their phone in the center of the table, one on top of the other, and whoever looks at their device before the check arrives must pay the entire bill.

A research team studying the ‘IPhone Effect” compared partners who did not place their own mobile device on the table or hold one in their hands with those who did and found that conversations between these strangers in the presence of a device were rated as less satisfying and were reported as generating less empathic concern. Another similar study found that “simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections broader social network, etc.,)” can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction. The authors ask, “If our distracted mind can negatively affect social connections and feelings of closeness just by being in the presence of modern technology during a short conversation with a stranger, what does that imply about how it can impair our real relationships?”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



September 19, 2017

This is the tenth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen.

A study of more than 200 employees at a variety of companies studied the facts that predicted employee stress levels. Although having too much work to do was the best prediction, it was only slightly stronger in predicting exhaustion, anxiety, and physical complaints than outside interruptions, many of which were electronic in nature. Gloria Mark summarized one study that “working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, more time pressure and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price. Clive Thompson, in a New York Times interview, summed up research results on workplace interruptions by asserting that “we humans are Pavlovian; even thought we know we’re just pumping ourselves full of stress, we can’t help frantically checking our email the instant the bell goes ding.”

Open offices settings further exacerbate this problem. Approximately 70% of US offices—including Google, Yahoo, Goldman Sachs, and Facebook, have either no partitions or low ones that do not make for quiet workplaces. Research has shown that open offices promote excessive distractions. HM personally testifies regarding the disruptive effects of these distractions. A content analysis of 27 open-office studies identified auditory distractions, job dissatisfaction, illness, and stress as major ramifications of this type of workplace.

The bottom line is that being constantly interrupted and having to spend extra time to remember what we were doing has a negative impact on workplace productivity and quality of life. One 2005 study, before the major increase in smartphone usage, estimated that when office workers are interrupted as often as eleven times an hour it costs the United States $558 billion per year.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



September 18, 2017

This is the ninth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. Safety is another casualty of the distracted mind.

Ira Hyman and his colleagues at Western Washington University designed a creative situation to illustrate the effects of distraction. They had a clown, fully clothed in a bright purple and yellow outfit, with large shoes and a bright red bulbous nose, pedal a unicycle around a large open square that is crossed often by most campus students. The researchers interviewed more than 150 students who walked through the square and noted if they were walking alone or with someone else, and if they were using a cell phone or listening to music with ear buds. When asked if they saw anything unusual, only 8% of cell phone users reported that they saw the clown. This is compared with one in three students walking alone without technology or listening to music wearing ear buds and more than half of the students who were walking in pairs without using technology. When asked directly if they saw a clown, only one in four of the cell-phone using students reported seeing it compared with half of single walkers, 61% of music listeners, and 71% of walking pairs. Whatever was happening between the user and his or her phone appears to have inhibited the ability to identify a somewhat unusual happening in the immediate neighborhood.

According to one report in Scientific American, data from a sample of 100 US hospitals found that while in 2004 an estimated nationwide 559 people had hurt themselves by walking into a stationary object while texting, by 2010 that number topped 1,500 and estimates by the study authors predicted the number of injuries would double between 2010 and 2015. A recent study by Corey Basch and her colleagues at several universities tracked more than 3,700 pedestrians crossing Manhattan’s most dangerous intersections and discovered that nearly 30% focused their attention on their mobile device while crossing during the “walk” signal, and one in four were even looking at their phones while crossing during the “don’t walk” signal.

Researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle children’s hospital found similar results in their study of more than 1,000 pedestrians. They discovered than 30% were doing something other than just walking while crossing an intersection, including listening to music and texting. The texting pedestrians took an additional few seconds to cross the street and were nearly four times more likely to show at least one unsafe crossing behavior than those who did not have their head down looking at they phone.

In one experimental study, college students were asked to cross the street in a virtual environment either talking on the phone, listening to music, or texting. Those who were texting and or listening to music were more likely to be hit by a simulated car, which the authors attributed to the conflict between the cognitive demands of crossing the street and paying attention to vehicles and the demands of paying attention to the text message conversation or their music. There is an interruption cost, but perhaps a deadly one in this case.

Little will be written here on driving while distracted. There have already been at least eleven posts on this topic (Enter “Strayer” in the healthy memory blog search box to find some). Suffice it to say, do not do it. Driving while talking on a cell phone is comparably to driving while drunk, and texting is even much more dangerous. Hands free laws are irrelevant. The attentional demands here are what is dangerous.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




The Impact of Constantly Shifting Our Attention on Higher Education

September 17, 2017

This is the eighth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. In one study by Dr. Rosen’s research team observed hundreds of middle school, high school, and university students studying something important for fifteen minutes in the environment where they normally study. Minute by minute observations showed that the typical student couldn’t stay focused on work for more than three to five minutes. Students were asked to provide their grade point average (GPA) on a four point scale. The predictors of a lower GPA from these extensive data were: percentage of time on task studying strategies, total media time doing a typical day, and preferences for task-switching rather than working on a task until it was completed. Moreover, by examining the websites that students visited during their fifteen minute sample, they uncovered a fifth predictor of a lower GPA. Only one website visited predicted a lower GPA: Facebook. It did not matter whether students visited it one or fifteen times. Once was enough to predict lower grade performance.

In another experiment by Laura Bowman and her colleagues at Connecticut State University, students were randomly assigned to three groups to read a book chapter and then take a test. One group simply read the chapter and took the test. The second group first completed an instant messaging conversation with the experimenter and then read the chapter and took the test. The third group started to read the chapter, were interrupted with the same instant messaging conversation, which was delivered in pieces at various times during reading, and then took the test. All three groups performed equally well on the test. But the third group took substantially longer even when the time spent instant messaging was removed. This result leads to two conclusions. One is that interrupted studying takes significantly more time. And the second conclusion answers why it takes more time. Each time one switches back to the primary task, time is lost switching and reorienting to where in the task one was when interrupted. In addition, working memory may also be compromised, as distractions degrade the fidelity of the information they are trying to maintain during the learning process.

Another study validating the negative impact of classroom multitasking interrupted students during a short video lecture and required them either to text the experimenter or post material on social media, under two conditions: one new text or post every minute, or one new text every thirty seconds. The control group simply watched the video, which was followed by a test. The results found that more texting or social media posting resulted in poorer lecture notes and lower test scores than the control group. A negative linear trend emerged in both lecture notes and test scores, where the highest scores and best notes demonstrated by those students who did not receive any interruptions, followed by lesser scores and notes of students who were interrupted every minute, and, not surprisingly the worst scores and notes of students who were interrupted every thirty seconds.

Several research studies have shown even more far-reaching effects of technology use by college students. One study showed that those students who used cell phones and texted more often during class showed more anxiety, had lower GPAs, and were less satisfied with life than students who used phones and texted less frequently. A different study of more than 770 college students discovered that students who used more interfering technology in the classroom also tended to engage in more high-risk behaviors, including using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and other drugs, drunk driving, fighting, and having multiple sex partners. So it appears that college students who use inessential technology during either class sessions or while studying face difficulties on both an academic and personal level.

The Psychology of Technology

September 16, 2017

At the centerpiece of technology is the internet. This is the seventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There is a distinction made in human memory between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory, but not at the moment accessible. A similar distinction can be made for information in transactive memory. Information that can be readily accessed, say via Google for instance, is accessible in transactive memory. However, information that requires more than one step to access is in available transactive memory. Obviously, the amount of information available in transactive memory is enormous, so only information that can be quickly accessed is in accessible transactive memory. So a hierarchy of information knowledge is
accessible personal memory
available personal memory (information that is personal memory but is currently inaccessible)
accessible transactive memory (information readily accessible from technology or a fellow human)
available transactive memory (information that can be found with sufficient searches)

This hierarchy can be regarded as an indication of the depth of knowledge.

Someone who can communicate extemporaneously and accurately on a topic has an impressive degree of knowledge.

Someone who refers to notes is dependent on those notes.

Whenever we encounter new relevant information we are confronted with the problem as whether commit that information to memory, or to bookmark it so it can be accessed when needed. Too much reliance on bookmarks can lead to superficial knowledge and unimpressive presentations.

Dr. Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues at Columbia University studied the ability to remember facts and unsurprisingly discovered that we were much better at knowing where to find the answers to our questions than we were at remembering the answers themselves. She dubbed this the “Google Effect.”

Social media began with email, but this is fundamentally one to one communication. Facebook is the medium for widespread communication. Moreover, there is the business of friending and liking. This tends to be taken to extremes. One cannot have hundreds of meaningful friends, and the continuous seeking of approval through likes can become problematic.

Smartphones are smart because the computer is in the phone making it smart. More than seven in ten Americans own one, more than 860 million Europeans own one, and more than half all cell phone owners in Asia have at least one smartphone if not more. More photographs are taken with smartphones than with digital cameras, and more online shopping is done via smartphones than through standard computers. Smartphone users pick up their phone an average of 27 times a day, ranging from 14 to 150 times per day depending on the study, the population, and the number of years that someone has owned he smartphone—and the number of years that someone has owned the smartphone—those who have owned a smartphone longer check it far more often than those who have recently obtained a phone. Frequently, there is no good reason for them to do so; 42% check their phone when they have time to kill (which rises to 55% of young adults). Only 23% claim to do so when there is something specific for them to do. Feelings of loneliness appear to underlie at least some of this apparently non-needed use of technology (see the healthy memory blog post “Loneliness”).

Multitasking, task switching, and continuous partial attention are serious problems. Remember that we cannot multitask. What is apparently multi-tasking is the rapid switching between or among tasks, and there are attentional costs in doing this switching. Multitasking occurs in every sphere of our world, including home, school, workplace, and our leisure life. Moreover, this is not just limited to the younger generation. One study followed a group of young adults and a group of older adults with wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras for more than 300 hours of leisure time. Younger adults switched from task to task twenty-severn times an hour, about once every two minutes. Older adults switched tasks seventeen times per hour, or once every three to four minutes. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone termed this constant multitasking, “continuous partial attention.” This could also be termed half-keistered information processing. Attention is not being distributed optimally.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Control Limitations

September 15, 2017

This is the sixth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A brief summary of cognitive control limitations follows.

Selectivity is limited by susceptibility to both internal and external influences. Only one source can be selected. It takes attention to disregard both internal and external sources that are external to what you’ve selected. This is why libraries are kept silent. Extraneous external sources require attention to be filtered out. This also involves internal sources. For example, you might be trying to concentrate on your homework, but you keep thinking about your upcoming date. Most meditation begins with focusing on your breath and perhaps a word or phrase and ignoring extraneous thoughts and extraneous stimuli.

Distribution of attention results in diminished performance compared to focused attention. This focusing requires attentional effort.

Sustainability of attention over time is limited, especially in extended boring situations. Although multitasking situations are not boring, there is the tendency to switch attention rather than to attend to what one is currently attending.

There are processing speed limitations that affect both the efficiency of allocation and withdrawal of attention.

Our working memory capacity is severely limited as to the number of items that can be held in working memory. The magic number 7 plus or minus 2, is closer to 5 plus or minus 2, and the limit can be as small as one depending on the nature of the information.

The fidelity, or quality of information maintained in working memory, decays over time and as a result of interference.

Multitasking is limited by our inability to parallel process two attention demanding taks. In reality task switching is required, which results in costs to accuracy and speed performance.

Although these are the same limitations homo sapiens have always had, they become much more pronounced due to the way we use our current technology. Moreover, this technology keeps multiplying, which exacerbates this problem further.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Prefrontal Cortex

September 14, 2017

This is the fifth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The (pre) in prefrontal cortex refers to its location in the brain. Otherwise it plays central roles in cognition and emotion.

An unfortunate accident first called attention to the prefrontal cortex. In 1848 working on railroad construction in Vermont 25 year old Phineas Gage had an accident which caused a three-foot-long, 1.25 inch diameter, fourteen-pound iron rod to be propelled up through his head, passing below his left eye, and traveling out the top of his skull to land almost one hundred feet behind him. He is reported to have remained awake with a gaping hole in his head during transport in a cart to his boarding house forty-five minutes away, where he received medical care and survived the incident. Although he survived his life deteriorated. Previously he had been a well-mannered man. After the accident he was disposed to fits of rage. He had difficulties planning and controlling his life.

An irony here that is usually missed is that he was 25 years old. The prefrontal cortex takes about that long to mature, so just as this structure reached maturity, it was destroyed. This explains why teenagers can be ill-behaved; they have adult bodies but immature minds. It’s unfortunate that this maturation takes so long. By the age of 25, there has been ample time to make decisions that destroy our lives.

Most people who have heard of prefrontal lobotomies think that it is something bad. People who have had lobotomies emerge zombie like. What is not realized is that Antonio Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1949 for his pioneering work in doing lobotomies. It is important to realize that at this time psychiatry did not have effective techniques for treating psychotics. The hospitals were referred to as insane asylums with padded walls and straight jackets. They were referred to as snake pits. So even though they were far from being an ideal treatment, lobotomies made an unbearable situation somewhat more bearable. Nowadays there are drugs to treat psychotics, so lobotomies are no longer justified.

So the prefrontal cortex is where decisions are made and it controls and coordinates communication throughout the brain. The American neuroscientist Joaquin Fester offers this explanation of a combined network and modular model, such that higher-order cognition emerges from complex neural networks that functionally connect distributed modules. This is the model he describes in his book “Cortex and Mind:
(1) cognitive information is represented in wide, overlapping, and interactive neural networks of the cerebral cortex; (2) such networks develop on a core of organized modules of elementary sensory and motor functions, to which they remain connected;(3) the cognitive code is a relational code, based on connectivity between discrete neuronal aggregates of the cortex (modules, assembled, or network nodes); (4) the code’s diversity and specificity derive from the myriad possibilities of combination of those neuronal aggregates between themselves; (5) any cortical neuron can take part in many networks, and thus in many percepts, memories, items of experience, or personal knowledge; (6) a network can serve several cognitive functions; and, (7) cognitive functions consist of fuctional interactions within and between cortical networks.

So this is what goes on in our brains every day and night.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Cognitive Processes

September 13, 2017

This is the fourth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The authors note that “‘Attention’ is likely the most widely used term in cognitive science.” Attention is also used widely by the general public and practitioners from diverse fields of education, philosophy, mental health, marketing, design, politics, and human factors.

To understand what attention means in cognitive science, its most fundamental feature is selectivity. Selectivity is required because attention is limited. Indeed, it is one of our must fundamental constraints. So we need to be selective to use this limited supply where it is most needed. It can be thought of as the spotlight in our cognitive control toolkit. Selective attention also involves suppression of perceptions that are outside of the spotlight. This is also known as the act of ignoring. What is not so well known is that this suppression requires attention which further depletes the limited supply. The amount of suppression required depends on extraneous stimuli in the immediate environment. And it also entails the suppression of thoughts extraneous to what is in the spotlight. Expectation also play a role here as we used our expectations to direct our attention. Expectation is what allows us to transition from the internal world of our goals to our perceptions and actions. Expectation is a critical factor in optimizing our performance by enabling knowledge of past events to shape our future. To a large extent our brains live in the future, using predictive information to bias both incoming stimuli and outgoing responses.

Directionality is another important feature of selective attention, We can direct our limited cognitive resources to stimuli in the environment, but we can also aim it internally at our thoughts and emotions. As in the case for external selective attention, our ability to control internal attention allows us to attend to relevant or ignore irrelevant information in our minds based on our goals. We can direct our attention toward searching memories and/or focusing on feedback from the body, such as a hungry stomach. It is often important to selectively ignore internal information such as suppressing sadness at a time when you need to remain upbeat, or suppressing a recurrent that is interfering with your current activities.

Another critical factor when using selective attention is our ability to sustain it. This is especially true in situations that are not engaging, or boring. Moreover, over time activities that once were engaging can become boring. Vigilance is the area of research concerned with looking for a signal over a long period of time.

Working memory refers to the amount of information we can hold in our active memory at the same time. This amount of information is limited. The exact amount is dependent on the items. George Miller’s original estimate was seven items plus or minus two. Over time this magic number has decreased. It might even be as small as one, depending on the nature of the information. We must keep thinking about or rehearsing this information to maintain it in working memory. And this is another strong constraint in our cognitive abilities.
Goal management is required when we have more than one goal. So when we engage in more than one goal-directed activity at a time, we are switching back and forth between multiple goals, we are multi-tasking. It is more accurate to call multi-tasking task switching as we can only perform one task at a time. We accomplish multi-tasking by rapidly switching between or among tasks, and this switching requires attention. There is also a requirement to review where we are in the goal to which we have switched back.

All tasks require cognitive control. Even if two tasks are not competing for the same sensory resources, mental task switching is required, with perhaps the requirement to determine where we were when we left that task.


September 12, 2017

Infovores is a term that has been coined to characterize we humans as information-seeking creatures. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, the authors of “The Distracted Mind”, note that as we are information-seeking creatures, behaviors that maximize information accumulation are optimal. This notion is supported by findings that molecular and physiological mechanisms that originally developed in our brain to support food foraging for survival have now involved in primates to include information foraging. Data that support this assertion are based on observations that the dopaminergic stream, which is crucial for all reward processing, plays a key role in both basic food-foraging behavior in lower vertebrates and higher-order cognitive behaviors in monkeys and humans that are often dissociated from clear survival benefits. The role of the dopamine system has been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. For example, macaque monkeys respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking. From this perspective behaviors that are intended to maximize exposure and consumption of new information, but end up causing interference, can be thought of as optimal.

So does this explain why, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 96% of all US adults own a mobile phone, and 68% own a smartphone? Among these smartphone users, 97% regularly use their phones to send text messages, 89% to access the Internet, and 88% send and receive email. Worldwide estimates are that 3.2 billion people, 45% of the world’s population, own a mobile phone. Smartphones, desktops, and laptops support multiple apps while web browsers allow numerous simultaneously open tabs and windows, which make it increasingly difficult to attend to a single website or app without having our attention lured away.

So, we can blame our dopamine neurons for our being drawn to all these new sources of information. But it does not appear that we are using these sources of information optimally. Perhaps insights from behavioral ecology. a field that explores the evolutionary basis of behavior by studying interactions between animals and their environments might shed light on our interference inducing behavior.

An important contribution to the field of behavioral ecology has been the development of optimal foraging theories. These theories are built on findings that animals do not forage for food randomly, but rather optimize their foraging activities based on the drive to survive. Shaped by natural selection, foraging behaviors that successfully maximize energy intake are selected and persist over time. Mathematical models of foraging behavior have been developed that can be used to predict the action given their environmental conditions. They describe how an “optimal forager” would behave in any given situation. Although actual behaviors deviate from predictions made from these models, these models are frequently not far off the mark and have served as useful tools to understand the complex interplay between behavior and the environment.

In 1976 evolutionary biologist Eric Charnel developed an optimal foraging model known as the “marginal value theorem” (MVT). This theorem was formulated to predict the behavior of animals that forage for food in “patchy” environments. MVT models predict how much time an animal will spend in a current patch before moving on to a new patch, given environmental conditions.

Optimal foraging theories have already been applied to human information foraging to help us understand how we search the Internet and our own memories, as well as how scholars and physicians search the research literature. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen state that to the best of their knowledge, such theories have not been used to address the critical question of why we engage in interference-inducing behaviors, even when they are self-destructive. The answer to this question will be pursued in future posts.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



September 11, 2017

Interference is the title of a chapter in “The Distracted Mind” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. Frequently we feel challenged when trying to fulfill even fairly simple goals. This is the result of interference caused by distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals. Our sensitivity to interference was not born out of modern technology. Rather, it is a fundamental vulnerability of our brain.

Interference is a term used to describe something that hinders, impedes or derails another process. Goal interference occurs when we reach a decision to accomplish a specific goal (look for something to eat, complete a work assignment, engage in a conversation, drive a car) and something takes place to hinder the successful completion of that goal. This interference can either be generated internally, presenting thoughts within our minds, or generated externally, by sensory stimuli such as restaurant chat, beeps, vibrations or flashing displays. This goal interference, regardless of whether generated internally or externally (frequently both) occurs in two distinct varieties—distractions and interruptions—depending upon how we manage the interference.

Distractions are goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds. When it comes to distractions, our intention is to ignore them. For example, we are trying to enjoy a television program, but we start worrying about a meeting tomorrow. This is an internal distraction commonly referred to as mind wandering. Mind wandering is particularly troublesome when we are trying to study. These are internal distractions.
But suppose while we’re trying to watch a television program, but are disturbed by something happening elsewhere in the house. This is an example of an external distraction.

Interruptions are the other major source of goal interference. Interruptions can come from external sources from people or environmental events. But interruptions happen when we make a decision to concurrently engage in more than one task at the same time, even if we attempt to switch rapidly between them. These latter interruptions are commonly referred to as multitasking, although research has shown that we cannot multitask. Rather we can switch between or among tasks, but switching itself entails cognitive costs.

Our brains are extremely sensitive to interference at many levels. The reason why goal interference is so prominent in our lives is the inherent complexity of our goals and the limitations we have in fulfilling them. The authors state that our ability to establish high-level goals is arguably the pinnacle of human brain evolution. The authors continue, “Complex, interwoven, time-delayed and often shared goals are what allow us humans to exert an unprecedented influence over how we interact with the world around us, navigating its multifaceted environments based on our decisions rather reflexive responses to our surroundings. Our impressive goal-setting abilities have permitted the remarkable development of our cultures, communities, and societies and have enabled us to create complex human constructs such as art, language, music, and technology. The sheer magnitude of our impressive goal setting-abilities has resulted in the conditions necessary for goal interference to exist in the first place.

Our proficiency in setting goals is edited by cognitive abilities known as executive functions. These are the skills that include evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning. However, goal setting is only half the battle. We need specialized processes to enact these goals. Out ability to effectively carry out our goals is dependent on an assemblage of cognitive abilities referred to in the book as cognitive control. This includes attention, working memory, and goal management. Our ability to set high-level goals does not necessarily mean that it is inevitable that we are overwhelmed by goal interference. It is conceivable that the goal-enactment abilities of our brain evolved alongside our goal-setting abilities to offset any negative impact of goal interference. The authors conclude that this is not what seems to have happened. Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degrees as the executive function required for goal setting.

The authors continue, “ Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide and sustain attention; actively hold detained information mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals.”

The authors note that “In many ways, we are ancient brains in a high-tech world.”


The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World

September 10, 2017

The title alone should indicate the importance of this book. Although the distracted mind has always been a problem with which humans have had to deal, modern technology has greatly exacerbated this problem. One of the authors, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a cognitive neuroscientist and a leader in the study of how the brain manages distractions and interruptions. Another author is Dr. Larry Rosen who is a psychologist who has studied the “psychology of technology” as a pioneer in this field for more than thirty years. Their complementary perspectives focus on demonstrating why we fail to successfully navigate our modern technological ecosystem and how that has detrimentally affected our safety, cognition, education, workplace, and our relationships with family and friends.

The authors note that there are two equally valid perspectives to conceptualize that magnificent organ tucked between our ears: as the brain—the most extraordinary information processing-system, and complex structure in the known universe—and as the mind—the emergent higher-order function of that biological machine. The mind is the very core of our identity and consciousness, The brain has over one hundred billion processing units (neurons) intricately interwoven by hundreds of trillions of connections (synapses) into a distributed network of staggering. They write that perhaps the most impressive feat of the human brain is its functional offspring: the human mind. “Despite centuries of academic thought and research on this topic, we still find the most effective way to conceptualize the wonder of the mind is to fully appreciate that it is the essence of every emotion we feel, every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every decision we make, every move we take, every word we utter, every memory we store and recall…in the truest sense it is who we are.”

Now move this wonderful mind into our every growing technological world. Dr. Rosen’s research has found that the typical teen and young adult believes that he or she can juggle six to seven different forms of media at the same time. Other studies have found that up to 95% of the population report multitasking each day, with activity in more than one domain occupying approximately a third of the day. What is not realized is that there is no such activity as multi-tasking. What is termed multitasking is more accurately a switching between, or all too often among, tasks. .

Moreover these technological innovations have been accomplished by a shift in societal expectations such that we now demand immediate responsiveness and continuous productivity. Studies have reported that US adults and teenagers check their phone up to 150 time a day, or every six to seven minutes when they are aware. Studies in the UK have found that more than half of all adults and two-thirds of young adults and teens do not go one hour without checking their phones. They’ve found that three in four smartphone owners in the US feel panicked when they cannot immediately locate their phone, half check it first thing in the morning while still lying in bed, one in tree check it while using the bathroom, and three in ten check it while dining with others. According to a Harris Poll, eight in ten vacationers brought or planned to bring at least one high-tech device on vacation, and a substantial portion of vacationers check in in often with their devices.

Drs. Gazzeley and Rosen describe how our cognitive systems cope with these tasks, and present a strategy for coping effectively. They also review the research on how we can increase the effectiveness of our cognitive processes. Plus they include strategies for coping with these overwhelming demands.
Obviously, it will take a substantial number of healthy memory posts to convey a meaningful portion of the valuable contents in this book.

Seven Ways to Overhaul Your Smartphone Use

July 21, 2017

This post is taken directly from the March 2017 issue of “Monitor on Psychology.”
If you want to minimize the pitfalls of smartphone use, research suggests seven good places to start.

Make Choices. The more we rely on smartphones, the harder it is to disconnect. Consider which functions are optional. Could you keep lists in a paper notebook? Use a standalone alarm clock? Make conscious choices about what you really need your phone for, and what you don’t.

Retrain yourself. Larry Rosen, Ph.D., advises users not to check the phone first thing in the morning. During the day, gradually check in less often—maybe every 15 minutes at first, then every 20, then 30. Over time, you’ll start to see notifications as suggestions rather than demands, he says, and you’ll feel less anxious about staying connected.

Set expectations. “In many ways, our culture demands constant connection. That sense of responsibility to be on call 24 hours a day comes with a greater psychological burden than many of us realize,” says Karla Murdock Ph.D. Try to establish expectations among family and friends so they don’t worry or feel slighted if you don’t reply to their texts or emails immediately. While it can be harder to ignore messages from your boss, it can be worthwhile to have a frank discussion about what his or her expectations are for staying connected after hours.

Silence notifications. It’s tempting to go with your phone’s default settings, but making the effort to tun off unnecessary notifications can reduce distractions and stress.

Protect sleep. Avoid using your phone late at night. If you must use it, turn down the brightness. When it’s time for bed, turn you phone off and place it in another room.

Be active. When interacting with social media sites, don’t just absorb other people’s posts. Actively posting idea or photos, creating content and commenting on others’ posts is associated with better subjective well-being.

And, of course, don’t text/email/call and drive. In 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving incidents on U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. When you’re driving, turn off notifications and place your phone out of reach.


July 20, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Kirsten Weir in the March 2017 issue of “Monitor on Psychology.” This article reviews research showing how smartphones are affecting our health and well-being, and points the way toward taking back control.

Some of the most established evidence concerns sleep. Dr. Klein Murdock, a psychology professor who heads the Technology and Health Lab at Washington and Lee University followed 83 college students and found that those who were more-attuned to their nighttime phone notifications had poorer subjective sleep quality and greater self-reported sleep problems. Although smartphones are often viewed as productivity-boosting devices, their ability to interfere with sleep can have the opposite effect on getting things done.

Dr. Russell E. Johnson and his colleagues at Michigan State University surveyed workers from a variety of professions. They found that when people used smartphones at night for work-related purposes, they reported that they slept more poorly and were less engaged at work the next day. These negative effects were greater for smartphone users than for people who used laptops or tablets right before bed.

Reading a text or email at bedtime can stir your emotions or set your mind buzzing with things you need to get done. So your mind becomes activated at a time when it’s important to settle down and have some peace.

College students at the University of Rhode Island were asked to keep sleep diaries for a week. They found that 40% of the students reported waking at night to answer phone calls and 47% woke to answer text messages. Students who were more likely to use technology after they’d gone to sleep reported poorer sleep quality, which predicted symptoms of anxiety and depression.

FOMO is an acronym for Fear Of Missing Out. In one study, Dr Larry Rosen a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and his colleagues took phones away from college students for an hour and tested their anxiety levels at various intervals. Light users of smartphones didn’t show any increasing anxiety as they sat idly without their phones. Moderate users began showing signs of increased anxiety after 25 minutes without their phones, but their anxiety held steady at that moderately increased level for the rest of the hour long study. Heavy phone users showed increased anxiety after just 10 phone-free minutes, and their anxiety levels continued to climb throughout the hour.

Rosen has found that younger generations are particularly prone to feel anxious if they can’t check their text messages, social media, and other mobile technology regularly. But people of all ages appear to have a close relationship with their phones. 76% of baby boomers reported checking voicemail moderately or very often, and 73% reported checking text messages moderately or very often. Anxiety about not checking in with text messages and Facebook predicted symptoms of major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar mania.

When research participants were limited to checking email messages just three times a day, they reported less daily stress. This reduced stress was associated with positive outcomes including greater mindfulness, greater self-perceived productivity and better sleep quality.

In another study participants were asked to keep all their smartphone notifications on during one week. In the other week, they were asked to turn notifications off and to keep their phones tucked out of sight. At the end of the study participants were given questionnaires. During the week of notifications participants reported greater levels of inattention and hyperactivity compared with their alert-free week. These feelings of inattention and hyperactivity were directly associated with lower levels of productivity, social connectedness, and psychological well being. Having your attention scattered by frequent interruptions has its costs.

The article also stresses the importance of personal interactions, which are inherently richer. The key to having healthy relationships with technology is moderation. We want to get the best from technology, but at the same time to make sure that it’s not controlling us.