Distractions Are Making Us Dumber

In our current Digital Age, there are more things competing for our attention than ever before in human history. Today, more people have access to cell phones than working toilets, and the average person checks their phone 110 times a day and nearly once every six seconds in the evening. 

Our perpetual, byte-sized interactions are not only a detriment to our concentration, focus, productivity, and personal safety, but they’re also hurting our intelligence. A 2005 study at King’s College London University found that when distracted, workers suffered a 10- to 15-point IQ loss—a greater dumbing down than experienced when smoking marijuana. Doesn’t sound too terrible? A 15-point deficiency takes an adult male down to the same IQ level as an 8-year-old child.

Our brain’s pre-frontal cortex is responsible for analyzing tasks, prioritizing them, and assigning our mental resources to them. When we inundate it with too much information or make it switch focus too quickly, it simply slows down. How much? The Journal of Experimental Psychology reported that students who were distracted while working on complicated math problems took 40 percent longer to solve them.

Ironically compounding the problem is our need for speed. The immediacy of information delivery in today’s world has also created a culture that places a high premium on speed, spontaneity, and efficiency, but those ideals come at a cost. In the hospitality industry, the desire for a quicker room turnaround negatively affected both employee safety and customer satisfaction. As the daily room-cleaning quota for hotel housekeepers rose from 14 rooms per shift in 1999 to 20 rooms in 2010, so did the injury risk rate, rising from 47 percent to 71 percent. While the changes meant the management companies saved money on staffing, the properties’ cleanliness—the number one reason guests don’t return to a hotel—was compromised. In 2012, researchers found that the level of colony-forming units of bacteria on surfaces in hotel rooms was 24 times higher than what hospitals deem is the “highest limit acceptable.”

Thankfully, there is a natural and easy buffer against letting the stress of speed and the steady stream of distraction overwhelm us: simply slowing down. Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow, it just means giving a precious few minutes to thinking before doing. Being cognizant of all the details before we act, of how we feel before we vocalize it, of why things might be unfolding the way they are before rushing to judgment can make all the difference between a masterpiece and a mistake. Details, patterns, and relationships take time to realize. Nuances and new information can be missed if we rush past them. And researchers believe that slowing down can make us smarter. In 2011, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital noted structural changes in the brains of participants who had spent just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks quietly meditating. Following the simple slowdown, each subject showed an increase in hippocampus density—the area responsible for learning and memory—and a decrease in amygdala density—the area responsible for anxiety and stress.

Slowing down just a little can change a lot. And in many cases, it’s the small, purpose-filled moments that make all the difference in building relationships, securing business, and winning trust.

The first iterations of the Art of Perception program evolved at medical schools because instructors like Dr. Glenn McDonald noticed their new students were relying too much on advanced technology and not enough on their own powers of observation. McDonald says, “Students need to realize that no matter how helpful technology has become, it is no match a good set of eyes and a brain.”

To get our own brains and good set of eyes engaged and focused, we’re going to look at our first piece of art. To help increase the density of our own hippocampus and keep from overwhelming our pre-frontal cortex, we’re going to take the advice of neuroscientists and psychologists and do so nice and slowly. If you can, plant yourself in an area where you won’t be distracted or disturbed. If you can get out of your normal surroundings, even better. 

Exercise: What Do You See?

Now look at following the painting. There is no specific assignment here; I just want you to look (click on it to make it larger). What do you see? List everything, in your mind or on paper, it doesn’t matter.

There is no set amount of time you must look at it. The average museum guest spends 17 seconds viewing each piece of art, which I think is far too short. Harvard Art History professor Jennifer L. Roberts requires her students to sit before a single painting for three full hours, a time she says is “explicitly designed to seem excessive” so that they might truly take the time to excavate the wealth of information proffered. Find a time somewhere in between that suits you but also allows you to really take in what you see.

Some questions to help you dig deeper: What do you think is going on in the painting? What relationships do you see—between people and objects? What questions does the painting elicit for you? There are no wrong answers. At this point, we’re just exercising our inherent abilities and unlocking our potential—potential we all have.

When you’re done looking, click here.