Are We Wired to Shut Out Distractions?

Elisha Goldstein on new research that suggests we have an "anti-distraction mode" in our brains. 

Photo: Jaime Olmo/

Scientists John Gaspar and John McDonald from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have recently discovered that we have an anti-distraction mode in our brain (See an overview or the actual study here). This means that focusing on what matters moment-to-moment is not only about intentionally paying attention to something, like reading this blog post or listening to a friend, but also about suppressing all of the distractions in the background.

Why is this important to us and what can we do about it?

In this day and age where companies spend a lot of money to figure out how to get our brain to pay attention to them, we need to understand how to switch those off to reduce our overwhelm and keep our sanity.

The way technology has been going and is headed is a result of some highly refined analyses on how to get our attention. When our attention is fractured over a period of time our stress rises and we become less effective. For a while now, Los Angeles has had electronic billboards on the side of the roads. I noticed my vision often going up to them while I was driving and being more engaged for longer periods of time than a regular billboard. It felt like a bad idea for road safety. Someone took it to the courts and now they have been shut off.

“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” notes senior author McDonald. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.”

It seems to me that another good study would be to take this new understanding and apply it to people during meditation.

For example, a simple practice like mindfulness of breath gives you an object to pay attention to, the breath. The intention is to bring attention to the breath and simply experience it as it comes in and goes out. It helps some people to say, “in” as they’re breathing in and “out” as they’re breathing out.

This is taught by mindfulness teachers all over the world. I also teach people this practice in the corporate world through an evidence-based live online program called Mindfulness at Work (only available to corporations through Thousands of people have taken this program who are often practicing in cubicles with a number of coworkers talking next to them. These voices are distractions during the meditation and also while they’re working through the day. Needless to say, they’re voices they would often like to suppress.

The instruction is simple.

Consider that in any moment we have foreground and background awareness. The intention is to allow the breath to be in the foreground and the voices of the coworkers to be in the background. But inevitably the distracting voices pull attention and they come into the foreground.

That is perfectly fine.

When we become aware of that we are “mindful.” We can congratulate ourselves for waking up, note the voices and then gently allow them to go into the background of awareness while the breath comes back into the foreground.

We can do this again and again, like a gentle dance, strengthening the brain’s ability to pay attention to what we’re intending to pay attention to while it gets better and better at suppressing the sounds in the background (Note: there are also plenty of mindfulness practices that include being aware of all experience at once, but this one is a good example about working with focus).

What I’m finding is that neuroscience often tells us things we already know from experience. The people I’ve taught have noticed that they get better and better at playing with the foreground and background awareness and eventually are able to focus better often because there’s less stress around it.

Whether you are new to mindfulness or have a longstanding practice, here’s a short mindfulness of breath practice to dip in and play with foreground and background attention (Note: this a practice in The Now Effect and was originally intended for people who have the book. So you’ll notice in the video that I initially thank people for getting the book. You don’t need to have the book and the practice will start very shortly after that).

The ability to focus makes a huge difference at work and at home. Keep practicing, trusting that over time you can get better and better at mastering the focus of your mind.

PS – Learning how to gain better control over minds and in turn, our lives, is a key reason I created the new eCourse: Basics in Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program.