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We place a lot of value on productivity, and being distracted can lower your performance on specific tasks. But it turns out that getting distracted once in a while can actually be a good thing!

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Sources
https://www.spring.org.uk/2009/03/the-attentional-spotlight.php
https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/08/22/spotlight-attention-more-strobe-say-researchers
http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2001-11836-003
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/019188699290052Q http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797612446024
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23957365
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00441/full
http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2013-07203-001
https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.3758/CABN.10.2.217.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18394486
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[ INTRO ].

Psychologists have often described attention as a spotlight you can shine on things to bring them into focus. And while you’re focused on something, your brain processes it preferentially, and everything else falls into the background a little.

But a 2018 paper suggests that attention is more of a strobe light — it ‘pulses’ by briefly switching focus to the background four times a second. Put simply, humans are wired to be distractible — and although you might lament that fact when you’re trying to buckle down and study for an exam, it’s actually a good thing you’re not always great at staying focused. People tend to view distractibility as a bad thing, and that makes sense.

In modern society, we place a lot of value on productivity, and being distracted can lower your performance on specific tasks. I mean, just think of all the work you’d get done if you didn’t keep getting lost in daydreams, feel the urge to check your Twitter feed, or…. Hey!

What’s that shiny thing over there…. Your brain does have ways of keeping you on task. Most of the time, when you get distracted by the outside world or your own thoughts, several areas in your frontal lobe will guide you back to what you should be doing, re-orienting your attention from whatever intruded.

But there’s a lot of built-in distractibility, too, and that’s because, from an evolutionary perspective, it has its perks. Being able to focus intently to pump out a million expense reports in a row wasn’t really something that benefited our ancestors. Instead, checking out the surroundings all of the time without realising it probably made them less likely to get caught off guard by something dangerous, like a predator, or.

Jack from the next tribe over, Jack. And being easily distracted by even tiny threats could have meant the difference between safety and becoming a snack. That’s something scientists say can been seen today by looking at how people with different levels of anxiety react to distractions.

Anxious people are naturally predisposed to assume a threat is near, so they’re even more easily distracted by potential dangers. For example, a 2007 study asked 44 participants to push a particular computer key as quickly and accurately as they could after being prompted by a screen. Once they’d gotten the hang of it, they were told that some extra words would appear during each trial, which they were to ignore.

And everyone was pretty good at ignoring neutral words, like ‘shower’, or positive ones, like ‘delight’. I mean “shower” is a positive word in my book. But the participants with higher levels of anxiety were more slowed down by negative words that could be perceived as physical threats, like ‘murder’.

It was as if their attention was yanked from the task in order to assess whether or not they needed to protect themselves. These days, that kind of strong reaction to perceived threats can be draining. But in the past, a little anxiety might have been a good thing, since the odds were a lot higher that there really was a significant potential threat.

And even when you’re not in literal danger, a bit of distraction can be super useful. If you’re trying to be creative, for example, there’s evidence to suggest that instead of focusing hard on the task at hand, you should let yourself be distracted. Several studies have suggested that distractibility and creativity are two sides of the same coin… or neuron.

That’s because the structural differences in the brain that make a person more distractible also seem to free up their imagination. But a 2012 study went even further to show that a bout of daydreaming can get the creative juices flowing no matter how distractible you are innately. The researchers tested the creativity of 145 participants using a measure known as the.

Unusual Uses Test. In it, you’re asked to write down as many uses for an object as you can within a set time frame, and are assigned points for each use you come up with. Participants did a baseline Unusual Uses Test, then either completed a mentally-demanding task, an easy task that let their minds wander, or simply rested.

Then, they tried the Unusual Uses Test again. Resting by itself didn’t have much of an effect on their scores, nor did challenging their brains with a demanding task. But the group that was given the easy task crushed it.

Their scores improved by an average of about 42%. And surveys revealed that distractions were really what gave them the edge — they were the only group whose mind wandered significantly in between the two tests. Other studies have suggested distractibility can help you prepare for the future.

In any given moment, things happening outside your focus might seem irrelevant. Like, if you’re trying to finish that report you’re writing, a distant beeping sound is just an annoying distraction. But, the information you gather while distracted could become incredibly important later on.

Like, when you realize that beep was your phone alerting you to that super important email containing all the information you need to finish your report... or a smoke alarm going off nearby. Look, I’m not trying to giving you an excuse to goof off every five minutes here. Sometimes you’ve just got to focus.

But being distractible isn’t always a bad thing. So next time you find yourself daydreaming at work or distracted by something totally random you see or hear, maybe don’t get so mad at your brain for getting off task. It’s just trying to help you come up with an innovative way to solve whatever problem you’re stuck on, or, you know, making sure you don’t ignore that incoming tiger.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! And thank you especially to our patrons on Patreon. It simply cannot be overstated: without our patrons, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, including making educational psychology content like this video.

So if you want to help us keep doing what we do best, or if you’re curious what being a member of our community of patrons feels like, you can go on over to Patreon. Com/SciShow [ ♪OUTRO ].