Any of us reading these lines in this very moment would reply with a clear-cut “yes” if I asked: “would you define yourself as a multitasking person?”. Instead, if I asked “are you usually distracted when pursuing a really important and complex task?”, the “yes” would be certainly less convinced.
We commonly persuade others and ourselves that we are able to manage many tasks at the same time, limiting distractions as much as possible. However, a study from the neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and the psychologist Larry D. Rosen, published in the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016), show that our brain is not structured to deal with many tasks simultaneously.
Distraction occurs, the authors argue, when we are pursuing a goal that really matters and something blocks our efforts to achieve it. After all, we do not consider ourselves distracted when we are scrolling through Facebook on a Friday night with nothing else to do. We feel distracted when we are scrolling through Facebook while on the desk at work.
They argue that distraction actually arises from a conflict between two fundamental features of our brain: our ability to create and plan high-level goals versus our ability to control our minds and our environment as we take steps to complete those goals.
The human being developed an admirable capacity to set high-level, complex and interrelated goals. However, this goal-setting ability runs up against the fundamental limitations of our “cognitive control abilities.” In other words, those abilities have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting and what we define “multitasking” is just the ability to switch rapidly from a task to the other, not to manage them together. This limitation increases through time, and so diminishes the capacity to block out irrelevant distractions. That is one reason why older adults may have more trouble concentrating on a conversation in a crowded restaurant than younger people.
These reflections have a tremendous impact on education. We might notice from our experience that we are more likely to stay focused on goals that really matter for us, whereas it is much easier to get distracted if we are not fully involved in what we do. Similarly, customising goals on the student will take the attention bar up.
Learning becomes large, and it expands to include new goals and challenges every day. In a digital era, in which distractions take the shape of glowing screens and new virtual connections, involving and being involved is a goal we should keep focused on.