Over the vacation, my friend Ed Willett's science column noted an article on how older adults are more vulnerable to distraction from irrelevant information. Well, being an older adult, that caught my eye at once, though I don't think it was irrelevant information!
Aha! So there is a reason why I'm so distractable these days. The study, conduced by Canadian scienties at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest and the University of Toronto, "has identified changes in brain activity that begin gradually in middle age – and which may explain why older adults find it difficult to concentrate in busy environments and filter out irrelevant information."
So it really is age that allows my son to concentrate with music blaring, and me to be totally distracted by it. I used to be able to write with music, but only if there were no words. In the last few words I've had to go to total silence, because even the notes distract me. Or worse, sometimes the music generates "scenes", which seems like it would be a good thing, but isn't because it's usually not a scene anywhere near to what I'm currently writing, and it's always the same scene. So even if I write it down, everytime I hear the music, I go back to the same scene and whatever I was doing breaks off.
I digress. Apparently there are two regions in the brain's frontal lobes that shift into a "seesaw imbalance" (not sure what that is) -- causing older adults to become less efficient in inhibiting distracting information." Instead of focusing on the task at hand -- reading, for example, or, writing one's book -- we are unable to resist the sudden thought that we need to go check the mail, or we should see what is on so and so's blog today, or how dare such and such reviewer make those comments about my books last year.
As younger people concentrate on a task, activity in the region that is associated with concentration increases while activity in the region associated with thoughts about yourself, what happened yesterday, or what's going on around you decreases. As people age, the activity in the second region doesn't turn off so easily, and the activity in the region that governs concentration decreases.
By the time we reach 65, it gets really pronounced. So the researchers recommend that "Older adults should try to reduce distractions in their environment and concentrate on one key attentional task at a time. It may be as easy as turning down the radio when reading, or staying off the cell phone when driving a car."
A cell phone would be a disaster. I can't even talk to my passengers when driving a car, because I get way too engrossed and who knows where I'll end up. On more than one occasion I've found myself driving home when I'm supposed to be driving somewhere else.
But this does affirm the importance of reducing external distractions and internal ones as well, since it's not just external monitoring that happens in the region that won't turn off. Which fits right in with my decisions to start simplifying my life again.
You can read the full article about the study here.