Tech distractions may harm your concentration, but you can reverse it, says psychologist

Technology isn't permanently harming our ability to concentrate, despite the widely held belief that our devices and the internet are making us worse at focusing, according to a cognitive psychology expert.

Concentration is a muscle you have to work to maintain, says Stefan Van der Stigchel

Environmental distractions are one of the main causes for losing focus. (Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

Originally published in March, 2020.

Despite "nonsense" on the internet that claims technology is permanently harming our ability to focus, an expert on concentration says there is "absolutely no scientific evidence" to back this up. 

However, Stefan Van der Stigchel, a professor of cognitive psychology at Utrecht University and author of Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction, notes external distractions like phone and social media notifications are harming our ability to concentrate optimally.

"You're just working fine and all of a sudden, you've got a notification and that's when you stop working. Those are a problem because potentially you could have worked a bit longer, but the external world required you to take a break," he told Spark's Nora Young.

Accordingly, concentration is like a muscle you have to work to maintain, he says.

Here is what might help or hinder that, according to Van der Stigchel.

The open office

Temporary decreases in concentration aren't due to any changes in the human brain, but how the working environment has transformed, he says.

Stefan Van der Stigchel, a professor of cognitive psychology at Utrecht University, says there is no scientific evidence that backs up the claim our ability to concentrate is permanently getting worse. (Stefan Van der Stigchel/Supplied)

The open workspace is particularly detrimental to concentration due to the abundance of talking and movement, Van der Stigchel says.

"[All of] those external distractions [mean] you can't concentrate for long periods of time.

"We know that if you will work constantly without interruptions, you actually perform a lot better. [But] that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take a break because it's not the case that we can focus for hours and hours."

The wandering mind

Another factor involves our ability to suppress what is called mind-wandering, Van der Stigchel says. This is the experience of distracting thoughts bubbling up inside of your head, which are not related to the task at hand. 

Concentration can be thought of as a "competition" between not paying attention to distracting information in the external world and suppressing mind-wandering, he says.

"But the moment you become tired, the brain automatically starts to wander and that's when worries can come to the foreground."

Internal distractions like general life worries and mental health problems also play a role in losing focus, Van der Stigchel says. People then instinctively reach for their phones to avoid these emotions, he added.

External distractions like phone and social media notifications are harming our ability to concentrate optimally, Van der Stigchel says. (Canadian Press)

"I think a lot of people can probably relate to the fact that if you're not feeling well mentally then this can result in problems with concentration."

However, mind-wandering is very important because it acts as a mental break, allowing you to return to more intense focus, and is critical in the creative process, he says. 

"I advise people to mind-wander a bit more, don't automatically pick up your phone when you're waiting in line at a supermarket, see what's going on in your brain."

Training your brain

Concentration also requires training and if someone hasn't concentrated intensely for a long period then they could "temporarily lose that ability," Van der Stigchel says.

Meditation is one way to retrain the brain into focusing for longer, he said. 

"There is something about meditation that is so fundamental [to] concentration… It's actually hard work and it's the same hard work as a long period of concentration."

Meditation is one way to retrain the brain into focusing for longer, Van der Stigchel says. (Getty Images)

While wanting to focus more at work is an experience many people would like to do, the distraction reflex is important when keeping ourselves safe, he added.

"You don't want to avoid all the distractions because then you won't be able to navigate traffic any more."

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Nora Young. 


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