Phone, email, notifications…: how does the brain react to digital distractions?


Today, screens and notifications dominate our daily lives. We are all familiar with these digital distractions that pull us out of our thoughts or activity. Between the important email from a superior and the call from school that requires you to leave work, postponing the current task, interruptions are an integral part of our lives – and seem destined to become even more prevalent. with the proliferation of connected objects in future “smart homes”.

However, they are not without consequences on our ability to carry out tasks, on our self-confidence, or on our health. For example, interruptions would increase the execution time of the current activity by 27%.

As a researcher in cognitive psychology, I study the cognitive costs of these digital interruptions: increased level of stress , increased feeling of moral and physical exhaustion, level of fatigue , which can contribute to the emergence of psychosocial risks or even burnout . In my work, I relied on theories on the functioning of the human cognitive system which allow us to better understand these cognitive costs and their repercussions on our behavior. This type of study highlights that it is becoming crucial to find a balance between our uses of technology and our ability to concentrate, for our own good.

Why worry about digital interruptions?

The integration of connected objects into our lives can offer increased control over various aspects of our environment, to manage our schedules, remember birthdays or manage our heating remotely for example. In 2021, connected home penetration rates (i.e., the number of households equipped with at least one connected home device, also including those with only a connected socket or bulb) were around 13% in the European Union and 17% in France (compared to 10.7% in 2018).

If the ease of use and perceived usefulness of connected objects have an impact on the acceptability of these objects for a large part of the population, the digital interruptions that are often attached to them hinder our cognition, i.e. say all the processes linked to perception, attention, memory, understanding, etc.

The impact of digital interruptions can be seen in both the private and professional spheres. In fact, it takes an average person more than a minute to return to work after consulting their mailbox. Studies show that employees regularly spend more than 1.5 hours per day recovering from email-related interruptions. This leads to an increase in perceived workload and stress levels, as well as a feeling of frustration, even exhaustion, associated with a feeling of loss of control over events .

We also find effects in the educational sphere. For example, in a 2015 study of 349 students, 60% said that the sounds emitted by cell phones (clicks, beeps, button sounds, etc.) distracted them. So, digital disruptions have far more profound consequences than one might think.

Better understand where the cognitive cost of digital interruptions comes from

To understand why digital interruptions disrupt the flow of our thoughts so much, we need to take a look at how our brains work. When we carry out a task, the brain constantly makes predictions about what will happen. This allows us to adapt our behavior and carry out the appropriate action  : the brain sets up predictive and anticipation loops.

So our brain works like a prediction machine. In this theory, a very important concept for understanding attention and concentration processes emerges: that of processing fluency . This is the ease or difficulty with which we process information . This evaluation is done unconsciously and results in a subjective and non-conscious experience of the progress of information processing.

The concept of fluency formalizes something that we understand intuitively: our cognitive system does everything to ensure that our activities take place as smoothly as possible, in the most fluid way possible . It is important to note that our cognition is “motivated” by an a priori belief about the ease or difficulty of a task and the possibility of making good predictions. This will allow it to adapt as best as possible to its environment and to the smooth running of the task in progress.

Our attention is attracted by simple and expected information

The easier the information seems to be processed, or the more it is evaluated as such by our brain, the more it attracts our attention. For example, a word that is easy to read catches our eye more than a word that is difficult. This reaction is automatic, almost instinctive. In an experiment , researchers demonstrated that the attention of individuals could be captured involuntarily by the presence of real words as opposed to pseudowords, words invented by scientists such as HENSION , particularly when they were asked not to cannot read the words presented on the screen.

For example, one of our studies showed that fluency – the perceived ease of a task – guides participants’ attention towards what their brain predicts. The study consisted of understanding how the predictability of words would influence participants’ attention. Participants had to read incomplete sentences and then identify a target word between a consistent word and a word inconsistent with the sentence. The results showed that coherent, predictable words attracted participants’ attention more than inconsistent words.

It would seem that an event consistent with the current situation attracts more attention and, potentially, promotes concentration. Our study is, to our knowledge, one of the first to show that processing fluency has an effect on attention. Further studies are needed to confirm our findings. This work was initiated, but could not be completed in the context of the Covid pandemic.

Unforeseen events cause a “break in fluency”

As we have seen, our cognitive system constantly makes predictions about future events. If the environment does not conform to what our brain had predicted, we must firstly adapt our actions (often when we had already put everything in place to act in accordance with our prediction), then try to understand the unforeseen event in order to adapt our predictive model for the next time.

For example, imagine that you are grabbing your cup to drink your coffee. When you pick it up, you expect it to be stiff and perhaps a little warm. Your brain therefore makes a prediction and adjusts your actions accordingly (opening your hand, grabbing the cup upwards). Now imagine that when you picked it up, it wasn’t a stiff cup, but a flimsier plastic cup. You will be surprised and try to adapt your movements so that your coffee does not slip through your hands. The fact that the cup bends between your fingers has created a gap between what your cognitive system had predicted and your actual experience: we say that there is a break in fluency.

Digital interruptions disrupt our predictive system

Interruptions, whether digital or not, are inherently unplanned. Thus, an impromptu telephone call causes a breakdown in fluency, that is to say it contradicts what the brain had envisaged and prepared.

The interruption has consequences at the behavioral and cognitive level: cessation of the main activity, increase in the level of stress, time to resume the task in progress, loss of concentration, etc.

The break in fluency automatically triggers the implementation of adaptation strategies. We deploy our attention and, depending on the situation encountered, modify our action, update our knowledge, revise our beliefs and adjust our prediction .

The break in fluency remobilizes attention and triggers a process of searching for the cause of the break. During a digital interruption, the unpredictability of this alert does not allow the brain to anticipate or minimize the feeling of surprise following the break in fluency: attentional (re)mobilization is then disrupted . We do not know where the interruption will come from (the phone in your pocket or the mailbox on the computer) nor what the content of the information will be (the children’s school, a cold call, etc.). ).

Strategies towards a healthier digital life

Finding a balance between the benefits of technology and our ability to maintain focus becomes crucial. It is possible to develop strategies to minimize digital interruptions, use technologies mindfully, and preserve our ability to stay engaged in our tasks.

This could involve creating uninterrupted work areas (e.g. reintroduction of the conventional individual desk), temporarily turning off notifications during a period of intense concentration (e.g. phone silent mode or focus mode of computer software). word processing), or even the adoption of smart technologies that actively promote concentration by minimizing distractions in the environment.

Ultimately, the move toward an increasingly intelligent, or at least connected, environment requires careful consideration of how we interact with technology and how it affects our cognitive processes and behaviors. The transition from the traditional home to the connected home is part of the issues of the HUT project for which I worked as part of my postdoctoral fellowship. Many researchers (management sciences, law, architecture, movement sciences, etc.) have worked on the questions of the hyperconnection of homes, uses and well-being, within a hyperconnected apartment-observatory. This allowed us to determine together the ideal conditions for housing of the future, but also to detect the impact of technologies within a connected home in order to prevent abuses.

Author Bios: Sibylle Turo is a Doctor in Cognitive Psychology and Postdoctoral Fellow HUT project and Anne-Sophie Cases is Professor, MRM laboratory both at the University of Montpellier