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Our Lady of Perpetual Distraction
A psychological explanation for why you've been feeling zoned out lately.
Picture this: I’m on my bike on the way to work. There is rush hour traffic, meaning dozens of bikes back to back over the bridge from Nørrebro to the city centre. Danish yummy mummies with three blonde children in a cart attached to the front of their bulky electric bikes, red-faced middle managers in their suits and ties, slicked-back Danske girlies with Asics on their feet and airpods in their ears. Everyone is truly on top of each other at this time of day, wheel-to-wheel. The lights begin to turn green, everyone wobbles forwards, but one woman just won’t move. When she does, it’s at a glacial pace. Road rage fills the air. I overtake, and she is literally scrolling on Instagram. This happens three more times that day. I know the Danes are comfortable on bikes, but there’s a time and a place – and I’m noticing this level of distraction more and more.
I am no innocent in the tug-of-war between reality and the digital void. Lately, I too have been visited by the spirit of Our Lady of Perpetual Distraction. She is the patron saint of overstimulated brains, tired eyes and short attention spans… and she visits every twelve minutes, according to a 2021 Ofcom report. This is how often the average UK adult checks their phone, the survey found.
Having a panacea of information at your fingertips at all times is, after all, a pretty difficult thing to be self-disciplined about. If the magnetic pull of your attention towards the little flat box in your pocket after a good minute of focussed work or the irresistible ping of a potentially important email are familiar sensations, you shoulder no blame. Contrary to what Elon Musk wants, we still have animal brains with animal impulses, and our devices are designed to exploit those.
Good news: your brain has a built-in solution: selective attention . It is an essential part of filtering information into what is and isn’t worth paying attention to. It favours the loud, the bright, and the important. Bad news: when we are surrounded by loud, bright and (seemingly) important stimuli competing for our attention at all times, our selective attention mechanism can become over-stressed leading to functional blindness, a kind of passive, half-aware autopilot state. This confirms that attention is a limited resource. Our brains have a finite pool of mental energy to exert, which explains why I threw a £20 espresso machine filter away with the coffee grounds at the end of a long shift last week and then put an empty bottle of wine in the fridge instead of the recycling. The hypochondriac in me rejoices - this is not early onset dementia! My synapses are just a bit fried.
Our Lady of Perpetual Distraction is not a harmless presence, however. Exposure to distracting stimuli during a task increases the likelihood of disrupted memory formation, information recall and other cognitive processes. We also notice less “irrelevant” detail such as the colour of a leaf on the ground or an interesting feature on a building when multitasking while walking. As a person who finds joy in the little things, the ability to see them is not something I want to lose. I want my brain to have a bit of perceptive energy left over, to draw inspiration from the everyday and to take in my surroundings. Doing without my favourite podcast when walking somewhere and not taking my phone to the toilet are the first steps (not that there is much beauty to be experienced in a poo – but it’s all about practice).
Perhaps I’m clinging on to an old way of moving through the world, however an ample body of research exists to support the real physiological and psychological effects of overstimulation, interruption and constant partial attention to multiple stimuli. Raised cortisol and adrenaline levels can cause inflammatory effects on brain cells which is linked to depression and anxiety, whilst consistent distraction and interruption during work has been linked to a drop in IQ scores double the effect of habitual weed use.
So how do you avoid distraction fog? In the event that you do not have the time or energy to resist the tides of change and retreat to the land to work the soil like our Amish friends (which I have certainly considered), there are a few solutions echoed by experts.
1. Read a physical book for pleasure. This will help you train your brain to get back into a juicy flow state and make deep levels of concentration more accessible in the long run.
2. Meditation or sitting in silence. Learning to recognise a drifting mind can help you practice holding sustained attention.
3. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night. This isn’t news, but insomnia and overstimulation can form a vicious cycle that becomes harder and harder to break.
4. Physical exercise, around 150 minutes a week. Happy hormones released during aerobic exercise will bolster your brain cells against stress.
This list may sound boring to some, but that’s exactly the point. A bit of boredom is good for you. For those to whom boredom is a luxury, I get it! Increased connectivity means increased expectations of being accessible at all times. We also live in an attention economy, so know what your attention is worth. Whenever you can, prioritise stealing a few moments for yourself. Although unwinding after work by scrolling mindlessly might feel like the most appealing thing to do, build in some moments in silent contemplation. I promise they’ll go by much slower than ten minutes on TikTok
 According to the linked article by Craik, functional blindness is the “failure to carry out deeper perceptual processing”. It is a similar sensation to anxiety dissociation. The dorsal pathway which is responsible for guiding behaviour without object recognition or analysis takes over – your body walks, for example, whilst your attention is elsewhere.