Overcoming the Amygdala Part 44
Do you find yourself often juggling multiple tasks at one time and not really getting anything done? Do you lose focus easily and get overwhelmed with so many things to do? Are distractions lurking everywhere so that it is nearly impossible to accomplish anything?
As we have seen earlier, attention can be too focused or too diffuse. Either extreme is a problem. For the anxiety sufferer, attention can be too glued to a problem or potential problem, or so dispersed as to make concentration on anything constructive difficult.
The brain (or mind, if you prefer) is a powerful part of ourselves that is capable of processing a great deal of information. It controls your behaviour depending on how you shape it — right now you’re being directed by it based on how you have shaped it in the past. It is capable of rewiring neural connections to create and strengthen new habits and weaken poor behaviour patterns, luckily.
However, it has a fundamental flaw that can affect your performance, productivity and ability to deal with anxiety.
It is very sensitive to being distracted.
In their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen explain how performance diminishes because of the interference that the brain encounters.
Interference is something which occurs which obstructs an already ongoing process. It can arise internally or be externally inspired by sensory data. It appears as a distraction or an interruption.
When you are battling the random anxieties in your mind, you are being distracted internally; when your phone steals your attention, you are being distracted externally.
To accomplish your goal, you need to act without being distracted. Either the anxious thoughts win or you win against them.
Interruptions, however, arise when you attempt to fulfil different tasks with different goals at the same time. Some call it multitasking and believe that they are great at it. Many jobs also put heavy demands on employees by requiring them to accomplish many tasks at the same time.
The brain does not favour this kind of approach.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson found that key circuitry in the prefrontal cortex becomes synchronised when sharply focused: the stronger the focus, the stronger the neural connection, which makes it easier to attend to a task.
In sharp focus mode, the brain scans the information you already know and connects it with what you are trying to learn or do.
Daniel Goleman says in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence:
‘The optimal brain state for getting work done well is marked by greater neural harmony — a rich, well-timed interconnection among diverse brain areas. In this state, ideally, the circuits needed for the task at hand are highly active while those irrelevant are quiescent, with the brain precisely attuned to the demands of the moment. When our brains are in the zone we are more likely to perform at our personal best whatever our pursuit.’
In other words, it’s difficult to do anything if you don’t focus attention long enough to build connections into your brain.
Which begs the question: if attention is so important for the optimal performance of the brain, why do we engage in behaviours which encourage interference?
1. Your Brain Seeks Newness
You know you need to finish something and yet you still pick up your phone and check your messages. You say to yourself you ‘deserve a break’. Then the 15-minute break gets longer until you’ve wasted an afternoon.
Why? Because the brain wants and seeks novelty. Novelty, according to various studies, activates rewards in the brain. You’re wired to seek fun and immediate reward, in other words.
Authors Bunzek and Düzel researched an area in the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA which responds to novel stimuli and is closely connected to the hippocampus and our old friend the amygdala. By experiment, they found that the SN/VTA only activated when shown novel stimuli, new things — this included increased dopamine levels which are closely related to reward seeking experiences. The book The Distracted Mind says:
‘The novelty load is undoubtedly higher when frequently switching between new tasks than when just staying put, so it is logical that the overall reward gains, and thus the fun factor as well, are heightened when multitasking. In addition, the act of receiving an earlier reward is often more highly valued, even if a delayed reward has a greater overall associated value.’
What does this mean for us?
We are hard-wired to seek distraction and to listen to ‘voices off-stage’. Not great news when our amygdala are yelling various warnings all the time, no matter what we are trying to do.
But there’s more.
2. You Are Wired to Seek Information
For human beings, information foraging is like the food foraging which we see among primates or in primitive human societies. Animals forage for food in order to survive; we forage for information in order to survive.
Eric Charnov, an evolutionary biologist, developed ‘marginal value theorem’, an optimal foraging theory based on the notion that organisms like to get maximum benefit for minimum effort. It goes like this:
Animals forage for food in environments where food is found but in limited quantity, moving from patch to patch, tracking and following food resources until they become depleted over time. If moving on to the next patch is easy, they will simply move on to find food — but if moving requires too much effort, animals will squeeze out the maximum food available from the current patch before moving.
How does this apply to humans and information foraging?
Foraging for information, you skip from website to website, looking for resources as you gradually absorb the information you get from them. When you feel like you got what you need, you tend to think that patch is exhausted and switch to a new resource that will give you the maximum benefit for minimal effort.
The internet, with its ‘one click away’ approach, makes this foraging even easier — in fact, it encourages it.
This is what happens when you find yourself worrying about the next health danger or natural disaster or risk to your family or whatever even when you’re not yet done contemplating the former worry. Or when you give in to check new messages when your phone pings, to escape from an over-foraged area.
Advertisers and companies lure you to click relevant headlines or content presented to you because they know you are driven by information foraging.
As a result, your attention is divided and dispersed everywhere.
As psychologist Herbert Simon puts it:
‘Information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’
How do you deal with this?
You need to master selectivity.
In order to operate in an optimal state, you have to be selective and strategic in what you store in and feed your mind.
One of the most famous experiments in psychology was performed by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. It shows selective attention in action. In the experiment, participants were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball, while counting how many times the players in white shirts passed the ball. Mid-way through the video, a man in a gorilla suits walks in, stands in the middle of the screen, pounds his chest, and then leaves.
When asked about their answers, most participants missed the gorilla entirely — but even after being told about it, they could not believe they’d missed it. Watching the video again, many argued that it was a different video that they were being shown the second time. The moral of the story is that you tend to see only that which you are focused on.
That’s important when dealing with anxiety.
What can you do about this?