Although we often complain about distractions, an honest introspection will force many to admit that we sometimes enjoy this hectic pace of hopping from task to task, from conversation to conversation. I, for once, feel that my brain is impacted by heavy computer use. Reading a long article online without succumbing to the urge to tweet about it mid-page takes effort. I may also be guilty of stealing a glance at the computer screen while talking to my husband. He usually calls me out for that.
What drives our brains to distraction? Blame our wired urge to search.
In 2009, The New York Times published an article titled "As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials Are Popping Up," reporting on the increased number of mistrials as jurors around the country used their BlackBerrys and iPhones to seek information about cases beyond the admissible evidence. Jurors are prohibited from gathering or sharing facts about the cases outside the courtroom, so judges had no choice but to declare mistrials. Months of work were wasted as the jurors' urge to search prevailed over common sense and direct instructions.
Our brains prefer stimulation over boredom. The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns. That's how we learn. The brain makes sense of the world around us by predicting certain outcomes, comparing these predictions to what actually happens and detecting prediction errors. Based on this information, our dopamine neurons adjust their expectations, enabling us to learn from our past experiences.
When the brain is busy predicting, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience. Interestingly, our prediction neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found.
In Slate's article "Seeking," Emily Yoffe writes:
Distractions provide novelty and stimulation to our brains while maintaining the sense that we can never figure it all out, so the search for meaning continues.
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
…It feels like it's time to check for updates on a fan page I frequent. My brain doesn't want to miss a thing.