• Paul W

The Road to Distraction

Imagine you are driving along a country road on a beautiful summer’s day. You are singing along to a song on the radio or chatting with your family in the car with you, and all is well in your world.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see a car approaching the next intersection along a side road to your right. They are travelling very quickly and don’t appear to be slowing down, and in fact, as you get closer to the intersection, they have to slam on their brakes to avoid driving out in front of you.

By now you have moved your foot from the gas pedal to the brake and are ready to steer around this idiot should they not stop. But what else has happened? You have stopped singing along to the radio, or chatting to your fellow travelers: what caused this to happen?

Well we know that the danger of a car driving out in front of us stopped us singing or chatting, but this is caused by the Subthalmic Nucleus, a small lens-shaped part of the brain that triggers a closure of current focus in order to deal with a threat or distraction.

It is an important part of our brain’s function: and it protects us. But it doesn’t stop there.

If you carry on driving and another car almost pulls out in front of you, the Subthalmic Nucleus reacts again and shuts down the current focus, but then, it starts to take over your mind because it is now on constant alert for the next event, which makes refocus on the original task even harder. And if after a while there aren’t any repeats of the distraction, there will be withdrawal symptoms, making it even harder to truly work at the original level of focus.

Now imagine that instead of driving along a country road, you are working at your laptop on an important project, and in place of a dangerous driver about to pull out in front of you, your phone announces a notification. Your Subthalmic Nucleus kicks in and closes down your project focus to deal with the interruption (your phone). If you then return to work and your phone buzzes again, your Subthalmic Nucleus will then go on constant alert waiting for the next notification. And if there is a slight pause in interruptions, there will be withdrawal symptoms.

Does this sound familiar?

We may not be able to do much about idiot drivers other than to be aware of them, but we can certainly make an effort to control most of the other distractions in our lives.