Review of “The Distracted Mind” by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

This book is a fresh deviation from the many “self-help” pseudoscience books written by non-scientists that are populating Amazon. It is written by  bona-fide neuroscientists and leaders in the field, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The style, however, is that of a professional popular press science writer. I found myself completely drawn in and engaged as the writers hit the balance between science (without being too dry) and popular literature (without being too “fluffy”). In fact, at times, towards the middle to end, it was truly a page-turner. I didn’t want to stop reading. 
The book hits upon perhaps the singular problem of our day – how to stay focused with so many – primarily electronic – distractions. I personally struggle with this problem every day – wasting untold hours on FaceTime and Twitter every week. Our electronic distractions are extremely effective in grabbing our attention. This book describes the latest theories and insights on why this happens to us, precisely what is going on, and how we might be able to reclaim more control over our attention. There’s also a bit of fMRI research included.
It is divided into three parts: 1. “Cognition and the Essence of Control,” 2. “Behavior in a high-tech world,” and 3. “Taking control.”

The first is an evolutionary perspective of how our minds work to optimize our survival. Efficient information collection has been fundamental to our survival, however, our instinct for and intrinsic pleasure with absorbing new information through technology is starting to interfere with normal life.  Here the authors develop a useful model for attention switching  – called “optimal foraging theory” which I thought was a good setup to understand at an intuitive level the factors at play when we are distracted. The basic idea is brought forth with the observation of a squirrel looking for nuts. Once a patch of nuts is found, what determines when the squirrel decides to look for another patch of food? A major factor is how close the other patches likely are. We forage for information, however the “distance” we have to go to find more information is nearly zero (therefore infinitely easy), thus we are always switching, creating a highly non-optimal state. At this stage in the book, I was completely drawn in as the writing was outstanding. 
The second part  goes into the many scientific studies (mostly from the Gazzaley lab) that demonstrate how our performance suffers and how we are absolutely fooling ourselves if we think we can multi-task without a – sometimes significant – deficit in performance for each task. It also further applies the “optimal foraging theory” to our daily lives. The authors explain the role that increased accessibility of information, anxiety, boredom, and reduced metacognition play. This part is packed with insight and puts the construct of attention into an easily understandable and quite accessible framework. 
3. I would have preferred this section to be a bit more substantial as I could use all the advice I can get! However, the information provided here was all useful and some was truly insightful and innovative.  Here they provide a good discussion, based on their own research and that of others, on the pros and cons of what we can do to reign in our attention: traditional education, meditation, cognitive training, video games, exposure to nature, drugs, physical exercise, neurofeedback, and brain stimulation. I was particularly intrigued by several areas. First, Dr. Gazzaley’s most popular research has been on brain training games. Here he discussed what works and what doesn’t as this field is extremely popular yet has shown highly mixed results and has become a bit controversial. I appreciated how he addresses these issues head on – what works and what doesn’t and why . One central issue in brain training games has been with “transfer” of skills obtained in a game to other aspects of real life. Other research on how pretty mundane sounding things like a walk in the woods naturally engages our attention and refreshes our brains was extremely interesting. I personally know that physical exercise is a great short and long term aid for increasing the ability to focus, and was heartened to see the growing body of solid science backing this up. This is the best, most exhaustive list of attention aids that I’ve seen – a great reference even for the researcher planning to delve into this area. Lastly, he ends with some interesting suggestion of phone apps that give feedback on phone use, etc.. The idea here is that the more we are aware, quantitatively, of our distractions the better we can deal with them. 
Overall, this book struck a great balance between great popular press writing, solid science, true insight, new information, and actionable and practical advice. A satisfying read overall! Now to stop picking up my phone so much…

Some of my highlights: 
“Specifically, we reported that multitasking performance declines from the age of twenty onward and that this decline is accompanied by diminished activity of the prefrontal cortex in older adults at the most challenging moment in the game, when a sign appears and they are also driving. The deficient activity level was of a rhythmic brain oscillation known as midline frontal theta, which is generated at the prefrontal cortex and associated with all aspects of cognitive control.”
“In 2007, thirty-eight University of Michigan students, armed with a map and tracked by GPS, took a one-hour walk through either a tree-lined arboretum or a traffic-heavy urban center. Before and after these walks they performed a working memory test. A 2008 paper described a significant improvement in their working memory performance after the nature walk, but not after the urban walk. Similar beneficial effects of nature exposure have been shown to occur in children with ADHD and young adults with depression, and amazingly even in response to just viewing nature pictures.” 40. M. G. Berman, E. Kross, K. M. Krpan, M. K. Askren, A. Burson, P. J. Deldin, et al., “Interacting with Nature Improves Cognition and Affect for Individuals with Depression,” Journal of Affective Disorders 140, no. 3 (2012): 300–305; A. F. Taylor and F. E. Kuo, “Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better after Walk in the Park,” Journal of Attention Disorders 12, no. 5 (2009): 402–409.
“Natural environments capture our attention in a bottom-up fashion because natural stimuli are so inherently compelling to us (presumably owing to evolutionary factors). They draw us in but generate minimal top-down responses. This is in comparison to urban environments where bottom-up stimuli are more likely to induce a cascade of top-down activities. And so, the bottom-up journey of a nature hike that the study participants engaged in was hypothesized to have given their top-down cognitive control a break, and time needed to restore their cognitive control resources and improve their working memory.”
The Marginal Value Theorem: 
“By modifying several factors—increasing metacognition, decreasing accessibility, diminishing boredom, and reducing anxiety—we can diminish counterproductive behavior.”
“text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted,”
“The Gazzaley Lab has already started seeing early evidence of beneficial effects in combining physical and cognitive exercise.” P. D. Bamidis, A. B. Vivas, C. Styliadis, C. Frantzidis, M. Klados, W. Schlee, et al., “A Review of Physical and Cognitive Interventions in Aging,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 44 (2014): 206–220.
Gazzaley, Adam; Rosen, Larry D. (2016-09-16). The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press). The MIT Press.

Author: Peter Bandettini

Peter Bandettini has been working in functional brain imaging since he started his Ph.D. thesis work on fMRI method development in 1991 in the Biophysics Department at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). After completing a post doc at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1996 and a brief Assistant Professorship at MCW, he became Chief of Functional Imaging Methods and Director of the Functional MRI Facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. He is also Editor-In-Chief of NeuroImage and has been active in both the MRI community (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine) and the Brain Imaging Methods community (Organization for Human Brain Mapping). All his views and posts are his own.

2 thoughts on “Review of “The Distracted Mind” by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen”

  1. Hi Peter,
    I appreciated your review of The Distracted Mind and agree with your assessment that the issue of digital distraction is a significant one. But beyond the digital distractions of our age, here’s a question and a challenge for you: As Bill and I have navigated through the challenges of fostering and then adopting children who come from homes of abuse, neglect and substance abuse, we have become privy to a new body of research centered around trauma and its effect on the brain. Our experience is that this research is still in its infancy and even as we are able to define the effect of trauma on the brain (and the behavior that results), the research on solutions for healing traumatized children are at best, emergent. The “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) quiz is a very quick measure of whether a person is trauma-exposed. So much of the violence, poor performance and poverty plaguing our urban areas is the result of children and adults who have suffered and continue to suffer from trauma/attachment issues. I would argue also that the terrorist activities we see now, and have seen throughout history, may also have their root in childhood trauma. I’m looking to the neuroscience community to grab onto this very real crisis in public health and offer some research-based solutions to issues the effect of trauma on the brain. is a good resource to just understand the arena we’re trying to work in. Our daughters themselves are doing really well, but it has been through intensive work and intentional parenting. This work, though has led me to consider what can be done on a larger scale.

    Thanks so much.


    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment Annemarie! You bring up a really interesting point that might indeed be rampant. While I’m not an expert in the field, I’m aware of many infant and developmental research that involves brain imaging. I also imagine that there are researchers trying to draw more clear and mechanistic connections between trauma/abuse and later behavioral problems. I’ll look into it! I might suggest that you try semantic scholar to search this. It’s a really useful search engine!

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