Learning in the Age of Digital Distractions

This is part 2 of a 2 part series looking at some learning concepts from the Book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, by Dr. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen a neuroscientist and a psychologist.  In this book they help explain why our brains are not built for multitasking, and suggest better ways to live in a high-tech world without giving up our modern technology.

In this segment we explore the challenges with learning in a world filled with distractions and how to better filter out those distractions.

Effect of Distractions

Most of us have a tendency, whether we realize it or not, to respond quickly to emails and texts messages so we get them out of the way.  However, Dr. Gazzaley’s studies have shown that interrupting our thought process can get in the way of high-level thinking.  High-level thinking requires more cognitive processing and therefore more focused attention.  What happens when you’re in the middle of a project and stop to answer somebody’s note, it could take you nearly a half-hour to get back to the task at hand.  “When a focused stream of thought is interrupted, it needs to be reset,” explained Dr. Gazzaley. “You can’t just press a button and switch back to it. You have to re-engage those thought processes, and re-create all the elements of what you were engaged in. That takes time, and frequently one interruption leads to another.”  In the end all of these interruptions make you less productive and, thereby, less effective.

Why Do Distractions Bother Us?

According to Dr. Gazzaley, the prefrontal cortex (associated with memory) is the area most challenged by distractions followed by visual areas, auditory areas, and then emotions — these networks are really what’s challenged when we are constantly switching between multiple tasks that our technological world might throw at us.”

Dr. Gazzaley goes on to explain that when we work on one task at a time the prefrontal cortex works in harmony with other parts of the brain but bring on another task and it forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently.  Even sneaking a peek at a text can create enough of a distraction that will impact our ability to work most effectively and this  can lead to mistakes  .  Check out this link to a speech that Dr. Gazzaley gave on this subject. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wg0ho9UELY.

Skeptical About The Impact Of Distractions?

The authors explain that our brains are limited in their ability to pay attention.  If you are skeptical about that, try checking your email while you are on a phone call.  Most of us cannot really parallel process these two demanding tasks at once.  It is likely that you had to ask the caller to repeat themselves or you had to re-read the email before you could process it and then respond.  According to Gazzaley we don’t really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks and that distractions or interruptions (often technology related) are what the authors refer to as interference that can impair our ability to be effective.

Productivity and Technology

There really isn’t any point in denying technology and the distractions it can cause students.  In fact, Dr. Gazzaley and Rozen acknowledge that the tendency of distractions is higher than ever before because of technology.  It is this unprecedented exposure to information all the time along with the very rapid reward cycle that everyone experiences in their social lives that creates the need for us to cope with these constant distractions.  In fact, jumping between so many texts and emails continuously is the type of stimulation that is prevalent in video games which young people do enjoy playing.  As a result, Dr. Gazzaley through his center at UCSF, is creating video games that are not only entertaining and engaging but take the principles like meditation, exercise and music and bring them into the gaming environment to help improve very fundamental abilities of the mind.

Through these studies, Dr. Gazzaley offers the notion that there needs to be some positive acceptance that our children are going to use technology.  Technology is not evil, it didn’t create these problems or challenges with interference but it certainly has aggravated them.  Studies performed in their lab have revealed that performance is only one aspect that is affected by technology.  They have determined that anxiety, stress and changes in mood are other outcomes to be aware of and monitored in your children.

Tuning out Digital Distractions

So what can we do to help teach our students to learn and study in the age of digital distractions?  Dr. Gazzaley and Rosen offer practical strategies, which are backed by science to fight distractions.  They suggest that we can change our brains through meditation, video games and physical exercise.  We can change our children’s behavior by planning their accessibility and recognizing their anxiety about being out of touch even briefly.  Being away from technology can even help our children to focus better.  The book offers further details about the need for us to re-train ourselves to become comfortable with sustaining our attention on a single goal.  For young people, who many have never developed this skill, to learn the value and to appreciate the value of single-minded sustained attention is important for them to learn.  And may even help them to become better students.

How To Boost Your Productivity

If you are feeling constantly distracted, Dr Gazzaley offers a number of tips and tricks that can help you to help your children overcome distractions and to buckle down and think.

  • Clear their work space. Remove mobile devices and extraneous papers.
  • Use one computer screen. Shut down all unnecessary programs and apps
  • Open one browser, and use only one tab.
  • Turn off email.
  • Set expectations about being disconnected from devices by setting auto responders.
  • Work in a quiet environmental or use noise canceling earphones if a quiet space in unavailable.
  • Encourage your children to have a no interruption time for studies
  • Check out helpful apps like SelfControlApp.com or FocusMe.com

Lead By Example


Dr. Gazzaley leaves us with a final thought as parents and that is to lead by example.  It is critical because we now know that parents are as guilty as their kids in pulling out a phone during a dinner conversation and texting.  Dr. Gazzaley adds that he thinks that it is really critical that parents practice what they preach.  They need to help their children to be balanced in their technology use and its important to practice it as a family.

Think of it as a technology “time out”, which can help your children to be in the present moment and learn how to interact with people on a human level without the aid of technology.  They aren’t talking about long extended periods without technology as a form of punishment but rather as a learning tool to help your child grow and develop in their face-to-face meaningful contact with others.  In the end, it is really up to the parents to decide what is best for their children and to help them be responsible in their use of technology.

Is Your Child Suffering From Digital Distractions?

We at Leading Learners are here to help teach your child better study habits.  Our tutors offer a safe study environment that can help your child focus on a subject that may be particularly challenging to them.  Whether your child needs a math tutor or a science tutor or is studying for the SAT we are here to help.  If you are in the Boulder area please call us at (720) 538-6144 or if you are in the Greeley or Fort Collins area that number is (970) 226-8704.


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