Dealing with Distractions
Monday, February 27, 2017 71 Comments
When the mind drifts away
Even when we’re trying hard to concentrate
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from The Challenges Series
This article (and Series) speaks to ANY of us who struggle with staying focused and on-task, by the way. Distractibility is common with depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and in plain vanilla brains with too much to do and too little time in which to do it all. What do you think is behind procrastination?
More about Distractibility
As I said in the conclusion to an earlier post of this series, Distinguishing Distractibility, most brains screen out persistent stimuli. That talent is part of the mechanism that ensures the survival of the species.
In order to be alert to something that might be life threatening, the brain automatically decides that ongoing stimuli are merely “background,” no longer important enough to pass along to the conscious mind.
I’ll use the sense of smell to give you an example of what I mean . . .
Because smells are processed directly by what used to be referred to as the limbic area of the brain (instead of having to go through the thalamus, like the other senses), most ADD/EFD and “vanilla” brains – those without the cognitive mix-ins – usually have the same experience of the way it works.
Lessons from the Kitchen
Have you ever prepared a Thanksgiving meal, or been in the kitchen while one was being prepared?
Think back to those amazing smells. Mmmmmmmmm – heaven!
Yet, if you stay in the kitchen, after a while you stop noticing them.
In fact, when another person comes into the room exclaiming, “Boy, it sure smells great in here!” you can’t really smell those amazing aromas anymore, even if you try.
Because cognitive bandwidth is a limited resource, your brain has “backgrounded” the persistent odors so that you will be available to pay attention to any new ones, possibly needing immediate attention — like the fact that the rolls are burning.
If you leave the room (or the house) for a few minutes then come back into the kitchen, even a short while later, every good smell will hit you like a wave in the ocean. “Wow. It does smell good in here!”
YOU don’t have to think about handling the “backgrounding.”
Your brain does that for you, just as transparently as your brain tells you how to walk down a sidewalk without your having to consciously consider each little step in the process — allowing you sufficient “brain space” to think about something else.
The other senses don’t work the same for everybody
The vanilla brains of neurotypicals – sans ADD/EFD mix ins – have a similar ability to “background” with each of the senses.
- If they live on a busy street, they “background” the sounds outside their windows unless something dramatic or unexpected catches their attention.
- Those without tactile sensitives who aren’t allergic to wool are usually able to “background” the sometimes scratchy feeling so that they are able to turn their attention to something besides what they are wearing next to their skin.
- If their preferred decorating style is Victorian, they are probably able to “background” what many might consider clutter, making it possible for them to locate an item belonging in one room that has been left in another.
For ADD/EFDers, “backgrounding” requires some work from the conscious portion of the brain — which is a great deal of what is behind what you will often read in articles about ADDers: they struggle with impairment with the “filtering and focusing” functions of the brain.
BUT, you don’t need diagnostic impairments to struggle with distractibility to the level that it practically decimates follow-through. Nobody has to google “procrastination” to believe me about that assertion!
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Different strokes for different struggles
People vary considerably in how well they can handle competitive calls for focus and what scientists refer to as “action decisions,” even simple ones such as shifting our gaze from one call for attention to another.
Petroc Sumner and his team have found that an individual’s ability to rapidly resolve such competition is predicted by the concentration of GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, in a region of the frontal cortex that is relevant for eye movements, but not in a control region (occipital cortex).
More GABA, less distraction: a neurochemical predictor of motor decision speed:
Petroc Sumner, Richard A. E. Edden, Aline Bompas, C. John Evans, Krish D. Singh
So how do we control it?
An MIT study report that came out toward the end of the summer in 2013, described in the journal Nature, suggests how the brain achieves this task, looking at how the brain remains focused on long-term goals.
Their research leads us back to our old friend dopamine – which most long-time readers already know is the neurotransmitter that is implicated most often in Executive Functioning Disorders, including ADD.
Their study results indicate that dopamine may signal the importance of high-value long-term rewards – as well as the distance to completion – which has implications for any of us who are highly distractible and frequently wander off-task.
Their findings also suggest that impaired dopamine signalling may be a reason why patients with Parkinson’s disease often have difficulty in sustaining motivation to finish tasks.
- Yet again, however, ADD/EFD is not mentioned as a possible beneficiary of the research.
- I can’t help but wonder why science seems content to leave us out here on our own, relying on each other to figure out what’s going on and how to work around it — especially after over 25 years in the field, watching this dynamic.
ANYWAY, it seems that their initial idea was that dopamine supplies were involved, but they weren’t sure exactly how they accomplished the deed (i.e, the “mechanism of action”).
Prior studies linked dopamine to rewards, showing that dopamine brain cells (neurons) fired brief bursts of activity every time a test subject received an unexpected reward.
Those neuro-chemical signals were thought to be important for reinforcement learning, the process by which we learn to, metaphorically, respond to the ringing of a bell to get the reward, salivating like Pavlov’s dogs.
The problem is that the reward had always been delivered quickly – within a few seconds – which said little about delayed gratification (or interim distractibility).
The description of the problem in the long-term goals study post is this:
A driver on a long road trip must remain focused on reaching a final destination while also reacting to traffic, stopping for snacks, and entertaining children in the back seat.
What they discovered
They were surprised to see a gradual increase in dopamine, peaking only as each rat approached its goal — as if the anticipation of a reward gave them increasingly more “keeping-on juice.”
From the article:
“The rats’ behavior varied from trial to trial — some runs were faster than others, and sometimes the animals would stop briefly — but the dopamine signal did not vary with running speed or trial duration. Nor did it depend on the probability of getting a reward, something that had been suggested by previous studies.”
“Instead, the dopamine signal seems to reflect how far away the rat is from its goal,” explained Professor Ann Graybiel, who led the MIT study (also an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research). “The closer it gets, the stronger the signal becomes.”
The study also discovered that the size of the signal was related to the size of the expected reward: when rats were trained to anticipate a larger gulp of chocolate milk, for example, the dopamine signal rose more steeply to a higher final concentration.
Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute, a computational neuroscientist, familiar with the findings but not involved with the study, had this to say:
“This means that dopamine levels could be used to help an animal make choices on the way to the goal and to estimate the distance to the goal.”
“This ‘internal guidance system’ could also be useful for humans, who also have to make choices along the way to what may be a distant goal.”
Still remaining is the question of how the signal arises within the brain of the rats, and whether it operates in a similar fashion in human brains, but this is news with encouraging implications.
According to study lead Graybiel, “It’s known that Parkinson’s patients, in whom dopamine signaling is impaired, often appear to be apathetic, and have difficulty in sustaining motivation to complete a long task. Maybe that’s because they can’t produce this slow ramping dopamine signal.”
Meanwhile, back at the ADD/EFD ranch . . .
Parents of ADD/EFD children can probably underscore the importance of immediate positive feedback during smaller “chunks” of a task — too bad the value of what many call bribery has been underestimated.
Perhaps reading this article will open a few paradigms a bit.
Rats don’t run mazes for the sheer joy of the task – and neither do humans, young or old. What do I get if I do it? is always in the back of our minds, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.
Our satisfaction with different types and sizes of rewards varies, of course, but most of us need more than an ataboy.
That brings me back to the vital importance of reward and acknowledgment to continued focus and accomplishment – in ALL of our lives, not just those of us with diagnostic struggles (or those who are still in grammar school!)
STAY TUNED, and while you’re waiting for the next installment of this Series, take some time to read more about inner three-year olds and the value of an anticipated reward in three articles formerly published. Let me know what you think.
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- Back from Boggle™ Series
- Top Ten Reasons to Reframe Procrastination
Related Articles ’round the net
- Researchers reveal how the brain remains focused on long-term goals
- The Brain “Sees” Objects That You Don’t Perceive
- Distractibility trait predisposes some to attentional lapses
- What distractibility feels like… (visually presented)
- How to Get Over and Work Around Distractions
- Dan Goleman: 3 Ways to Take Control of Tech Distractions
- Information consumes attention: focus in the age of abundant stimulus
- MedicalPress articles list: delayed gratification
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