Phone, e-mail, notifications... how does the brain react to digital distractions?

Today, screens and notifications dominate our daily lives. We're all familiar with these digital distractions that pull us out of our thoughts or activity. Between an important e-mail from a superior and a call from school that forces us to leave work, postponing the task in hand, interruptions are an integral part of our lives - and seem destined to become even more prevalent with the proliferation of connected objects in future "smart homes".

Sibylle Turo, University of Montpellier and Anne-Sophie Cases, University of Montpellier

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However, they do have an impact on our ability to complete tasks, our self-confidence and our health. For example, interruptions can lead to a 27% increase in the time it takes to complete an activity.

As a researcher in cognitive psychology, I study the cognitive costs of these digital interruptions: increased stress levels, increased feelings of moral and physical exhaustion, fatigue levels, which can contribute to theemergence of psychosocial risks or even burn-out. In my work, I have drawn on theories on the functioning of the human cognitive system, which enable us to better understand these cognitive costs and their repercussions on our behavior. This type of study underlines the crucial need to strike a balance between our use of technology and our ability to concentrate, for our own good.

Why worry about digital interruptions?

The integration of connected objects into our lives can offer greater control over various aspects of our environment, to manage our schedules, remember birthdays or manage our heating remotely, for example. In 2021, connected home penetration rates (i.e., the number of households equipped with at least one connected home device, also encompassing those with only a connected socket or light bulb) were around 13% in the European Union and 17% in France (up from 10.7% in 2018).

While the ease of use and perceived usefulness of connected objects have an impact on their acceptability to a large part of the population, the digital interruptions that are often attached to them hamper our cognition, i.e. all the processes linked to perception, attention, memory, comprehension, and so on.

The impact of digital interruptions can be observed in both the private and professional spheres. On average, it takes more than a minute for a person to return to work after consulting their mailbox. Studies show that employees regularly spend more than 1.5 hours a day recovering from e-mail interruptions. This leads to an increase in perceived workload and stress levels, as well as a feeling of frustration, even exhaustion, associated with a sense of loss of control over events.

There are also effects in the educational sphere. For example, in a 2015 study of 349 students, 60% said that the sounds made by cell phones (clicks, beeps, button sounds, etc.) distracted them. So digital interruptions have far more far-reaching consequences than we might think.

A better understanding of the cognitive cost of digital interruptions

To understand why digital interruptions are so disruptive to the flow of our thoughts, we need to take a look at the way our brains work. When we perform a task, the brain is constantly making predictions about what's going to happen. This enables us to adapt our behavior and perform the appropriate action: the brain sets up predictive and anticipatory loops.

In this way, our brain functions as a prediction machine. In this theory, a concept emerges that is very important for understanding the processes of attention and concentration: that of processing fluency. This is the ease or difficulty with which we process information. This assessment is made unconsciously, and results in a subjective, non-conscious experience of how information is processed.

The concept of fluency formalizes something we understand intuitively: our cognitive system does everything in its power to ensure that our activities run as smoothly andfluently as possible. It's important to note that our cognition is "motivated" by an a priori belief in the ease or difficulty of a task, and in the possibility of making good predictions. This will enable him to adapt as best he can to his environment and the task in hand.

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The easier the information appears to be to process, or the more it is evaluated as such by our brain, the more it attracts our attention. For example, a word that's easy to read attracts our attention more than one that's difficult. This reaction is automatic, almost instinctive. In one experiment, researchers demonstrated that people's attention could be involuntarily captured by the presence of real words as opposed to pseudowords, words invented by scientists such as HENSION, particularly when they were asked not to read the words presented on the screen.

For example, one of our studies showed that fluency - the perceived ease of a task - guides participants' attention towards what their brains predict. The study aimed to understand how word predictability would influence participants' attention. Participants were asked to read incomplete sentences and then identify a target word between a coherent word and a word inconsistent with the sentence. The results showed that coherent, predictable words attracted participants' attention more than incoherent words.

It would seem that an event consistent with the situation in hand attracts more attention and, potentially, promotes concentration. Our study is, to our knowledge, one of the first to show that processing fluency has an effect on attention. Further studies are needed to confirm our findings. This work was initiated, but could not be completed in the context of the Covid pandemic.

Unexpected events cause a "break in the flow".

As we have seen, our cognitive system is constantly making predictions about future events. If the environment doesn't conform to our brain's predictions, we first have to adapt our actions (often when we've already put everything in place to act in accordance with our prediction), and then try to understand the unexpected event in order to adapt our predictive model for the next time.

For example, imagine you're reaching for your mug to drink your coffee. As you pick it up, you expect it to be stiff and perhaps a little hot. Your brain makes a prediction and adjusts your actions accordingly (opening your hand, grabbing the cup upwards). Now imagine that when you grab it, it's not a rigid cup, but a more fragile plastic cup. You'll be surprised and will have to adapt your movements to prevent your coffee from slipping through your hands. The fact that the cup bends between your fingers has created a gap between what your cognitive system had predicted and your actual experience: we call this a fluency break.

Digital interruptions disrupt our predictive system

Interruptions, whether digital or not, are by nature unplanned. An impromptu phone call, for example, causes a break in fluency, i.e. it contradicts what the brain had envisaged and prepared for.

Interruption has behavioral and cognitive consequences: stopping the main activity, increased stress levels, time to resume the task in hand, loss of concentration, etc.

The breakdown in fluency automatically triggers the implementation of coping strategies. We deploy our attention and, depending on the situation encountered, modify our action, update our knowledge, revise our beliefs and adjust our prediction.

The break in fluency remobilizes attention and triggers a process of searching for the cause of the break. In the event of a digital interruption, the unpredictable nature of the alert means that the brain cannot anticipate or minimize the feeling of surprise that follows the fluency break: attentional (re)mobilization is thus disrupted. We don't know where the interruption will come from (the phone in our pocket or the mailbox on our computer) or what the content of the information will be (the children's school, a cold call...).

Strategies for a healthier digital life

Striking a balance between the benefits of technology and our ability to maintain concentration is becoming crucial. It is possible to develop strategies to minimize digital interruptions, use technologies consciously, and preserve our ability to stay engaged in our tasks.

This could involve the creation of uninterrupted work zones (e.g. the reintroduction of the conventional individual desk), the temporary deactivation of notifications during a period of intense concentration (e.g. phone silent mode or the "focus" mode of word processing software), or even the adoption of smart technologies that actively promote concentration by minimizing distractions in the environment.

Ultimately, the move towards an increasingly intelligent, or at least connected, environment requires careful consideration of how we interact with technology and how it affects our cognitive processes and behaviors. The transition from the traditional home to the connected home is one of the issues addressed by the HUT project, for which I worked as a post-doc. Numerous researchers (management sciences, law, architecture, movement sciences, etc.) worked on the issues of hyperconnected homes, uses and well-being, within a hyperconnected apartment-observatory. This enabled us to determine together the ideal conditions for the home of the future, but also to detect the impact of technologies within a connected habitat, in order to prevent any excesses.

Sibylle Turo, PhD in Cognitive Psychology and Postdoctoral Fellow, HUT project, University of Montpellier and Anne-Sophie Cases, Professor, MRM Laboratory, University of Montpellier, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.