Have you ever walked across the kitchen to the refrigerator, then forgotten what you went there for when you opened the door? Don't panic, your memory hasn't vaporized. Adam Gazzaley says it happens to everyone -- a distraction interfered with your attention.
Have you ever been deeply engaged in a project, staring into a computer screen, only to lose focus when you see a new email arrive? He says the unstoppable urge to read it comes from man's inherent curiosity about the unknown. Human beings have always sought novel information.
Gazzaley is an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at UC San Francisco. He is fascinated by the brain; how it processes information, prioritizes goals and deals with distractions. He kept a roomful of listeners spellbound last week at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center during his Commonwealth Club presentation: "Your Brain on Computers: Neuroscience and Tech's Devices of Distraction."
He offered reassuring news for parents who fear video games are turning their children's brains to mush: Tests have shown that gamers score exceptionally high in their ability to focus and respond to new information.
"There's a potential to use this type of interactive media to improve brain functions," he said in front of 150 sets of raised eyebrows.
He also explained those occasional lapses in attention, when you ... um ... where was I ... stumble into an unexplainable fog.
"There's a disassociation many times between where our eyes might be pointed and where our brain is pointed," he said. He cited the time he squirted moisturizer on his toothbrush while he was deep in thought.
It seems there really are absent-minded professors.
The human brain is forever balancing its focus between task-oriented goals and daily interactions with the environment. Neuroscientists describe these two forms of attention as top-down (planning a strategy) and bottom-up (reacting to a barking dog). Humans' highly developed prefrontal cortex enables them to focus on what's important. It works that way for adults, anyway. Children's brains are not fully evolved.
That's why a 13-year-old will suddenly tune out his parents when a text message pings his cellphone. It's why a 9-year-old puts down his homework the moment "SpongeBob SquarePants" appears on TV.
It's not that they don't care. Bottom-up just won the fight with top-down. Gazzaley said even adults have such internal battles, especially in the smartphone era. Every time a phone vibrates, it tempts you with a new piece of information, clamoring for attention.
"I love technology," Gazzaley said, "but there is a clear cost of frequent interruptions and distractions on how we perform."
When the professor saw himself falling prey to such interruptions, suffering what he called a "performance impact," he decided to shut off his email program and switch his cellphone to airplane mode when he was involved in critical tasks.
And, please, don't tell him about your multitasking ability. He said that's largely a myth.
"If you are doing more than one task that requires your top-down resources, they will compete and conflict with each other," he said. "You don't really do them in parallel. You shift between them."
Gotta go now. My cellphone's ringing.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.