Cognitive Deficit?

“Genius is nothing but continued attention.”  – Claude Adrien Helvetius

We all know that we should manage our time more efficiently, and most of us are very bad at switching off email and social networking connections to focus on work, but how much impact does constant disruption have on our efficiency?  More importantly, what is the longer-term impact of the deluge of data on our brains?

Although Clay Shirky proclaims the benefits of the digital age in his latest book Cognitive Surplus (which I should declare I have not yet read), recent scientific studies and common sense suggest that we work better when we are focused on an individual task.  In a recent article in Harvard Business Review “Breaking the email addiction”, Tony Schwartz argues that the battle is not against overload, but rather addiction to communication, information and above all instant gratification. These days people are not only addicted to technology, they are becoming more addicted to drugs, this is where The Recovery Village Ridgefield comes in because their services have helped a lot of people come out of their addiction.

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He discusses Walter Mischel’s famous experiments, where a marshmallow was placed in front of young children (typically 4 years old), who were told that they could eat the single marshmallow, or wait while he left the room and later returned, in which case they would receive two marshmallows.  Predictably, only 30% of children were able to wait longer than 15 minutes to double their marshmallow prize.  In this context the marshmallow was highly seductive, like the ping of a text or email.

The 30% who waited, did so by focusing on something else, avoiding looking at the marshmallow, something Mischel called the “strategic allocation of attention”.   More importantly, the performance of the children in this experiment was later found to have a strong and significant correlation with their performance as adults in terms of academic attainment, cognitive skills and even drug use – those who could “allocate attention” and wait, had higher SAT scores, lower drug use and lower body mass indices in later life. Even to those people who are working for the law, we encourage you out there to get addiction treatment for police. Recovery centers can truly save lives so if you are planning to start one, treatment business consultants can help you in feasibility studies, licensing services, securing accreditation, insurance billing, and full start to finish consulting to open a center.

Many experiments have shown that multi-tasking is very very bad for your performance.  To give a shocking example, Harold Paschler showed that the performance of subjects asked to simultaneously complete two tasks often dropped from the level of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8 year old!  More recently, researchers at Stamford University have discovered many long term consequences of multi-tasking, finding that those asked to multi-task for long periods of time, actually lose the ability to pay attention, control their memory and switch between tasks.  That is, multi-tasking reduces your ability to multi-task.

Nicholas Carr argues strongly that the riot of information that surrounds us, is shattering our attention and re-wiring our plastic brains.  As examples he cites experiments which show that the brain scans of regular “surfers” are markedly different from those who use the internet less frequently, with much greater activity in the areas of the brain associated with decision making and problem solving. Further experiments showed that more regular surfing rewired the brains of the novices in the same way, indicating that this activity was due to internet use.  The question is then if this brain activity is better or worse for humans?

Typically, this area of the brain is used when we have to “think” about a problem or make a decision, something our brains avoid as much as possible, as unconscious decision making is far more efficient and effective.  The conclusion is that in a digital / online environment our thinking is more hurried, distracted and disjointed, and our learning more superficial.  This is because we are constantly navigating hyperlinks, clicking, and adjusting, which requires continuous decision-making.  Reading a book we do not have such distractions, and our comprehension is much better (something which has been demonstrated in other experiments) – that is, we learn more, comprehend more and remember more when we are not distracted in the process of absorbing information.

Creative thinking depends on our ability to shift information from working memory to longer term memory, where we are able to weave connections between ideas.  The transfer between short and long term memory is a bottleneck in our brain, as our short term memory is very limited, whereas our long term memory is (as good as) infinite.  So constant breaks in attention interrupt this process, preventing the transfer and hence significantly reducing our ability to learn, understand and create new conceptual blends of our experience.

The internet, and email, are interruption systems, each interruption breaking our concentration and interrupting the flow of information into our long term mental resources.  This doesn’t mean that the internet is making us dumb, but it does mean that we are developing one set of mental skills at the expense of others.  The impact of the digital cognitive deficit is to weaken our knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, imaginative and reflective skills at the expense of  visual-spatial skills and others.

Carr uses the analogy of a reversal of civilization, where we are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the digital data forest.  However, there are simple ways in which we can slow this process down.  Tony Schwartz recommends switching off email when we are focusing on a specific task (as I have done while writing this) and ‘taking back your lunch’ to spend time away from blackberries to focus on solving a problem or connecting with a friend or colleague.  This will give you far more long term cognitive value, and your email will still be there when you return!


Pashler, H. “Attentional limitations in doing two tasks at the same time.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 1 (1992):44-50

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One thought on “Cognitive Deficit?

  1. Duncan

    Very interesting indeed… Actually I picked up my Blackberry twice, half made a cup of tea, updated Facebook and made a long, pointless phone call before I got to the end of this article…

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