How the Omnipresent Cellphone Trains Our Brains to be Distracted

Do you feel like it is difficult to pay attention to just one thing for a long time? Joe Kraus puts his finger on the problem in the following video (be sure to watch the first minute or so, there is a hilarious commercial from Microsoft at the front end of Kraus’ presentation):

There are some very insightful comments in this video. You can read the transcript here, but I thought I would highlight some of the best moments:

Kraus tells us that our culture of distraction–driven largely by the omnipresence of the mobile phone–is pushing away from attention toward distraction. Carrying a cell phone is a lifestyle choice for distraction.

I’d argue that what’s happening is that we’re becoming like the mal-formed weight lifter who trains only their upper body and has tiny little legs. We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractable brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them.

The result of carrying a cell phone is that we now feel anxious if we have nothing to do. In my previous post I pointed to research which calls this “arousal addiction.” Instead of letting ourselves enjoy a quiet moment to reflect, pray, or just be, we quickly pull out our cell phones. The bad part about this is that filling every quite gap in our day with stimuli is a choice against creativity. Creativity requires boredom. Don’t believe me? Consider:

Where’s the #1 reported place where people get insight? The shower. Why the shower? In the shower, there’s not much else to do. We’re relaxed. Our mind wanders but it’s not constantly being bombarded with new information (at least until we can take our phones in the shower which I’m sure is being worked on…). The shower time is GAP time. Time for our minds to make subtle connections and insights. Creativity REQUIRES gap time.

Gaps used to happen all the time. Now they’re disappearing. You’re eating lunch with a friend and they excuse themselves to the restroom. A gap. Now, you pull our your phone because being unstimulated makes you feel anxious. Waiting time in a line at the bank? Used to be a gap. Now it’s an opportunity to send an email or a text.

We didn’t think gap time and “boredom” were valuable. Now that we’re losing it, we get a sense of just how valuable it was.

Simply put, at the heart of creativity, insight, imagination and humaneness is an ability to pay attention to ANYTHING – our ideas, our line of thinking, each other. And that is what’s most threatened.

Have you built intentional gap times into your days or week? Kraus makes two major recommendations to help us train the rest of our brains:

  1. Take a weekly sabbath from technology. There seems to be a growing awareness of the need for this in our culture today. I love how its a not-so-subtle reminder of Scriptural principles.
  2. “ACTIVELY TRAIN your long-form attention and mindfullness. For some that means leaving the phone and going for a 15 minute walk. For others it means meditating. For others it means attending church or temple. Whatever form it takes, make it a DAILY practice of slowing down. Train that part of your brain.”

In light of his advice, I can’t stop thinking about how tablets and phones are designed to be devices of distraction and how this affects our approach to spiritual disciplines. Let’s encourage our young people to turn off their phones and read Scripture from a book (see my post on this topic)!

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