Monday, May 14, 2012
Online Communications and
Social Media Coordinator
Please Note: The content found
on this Blog is for informational
purposes only. It should not be
a substitute for professional
medical advice, diagnosis, or
treatment. If you have any
questions regarding a personal
medical condition, you should
always ask your physician.
Never ignore medical advice or
postpone care due to something
you have read on our site.
All Blog posts are reviewed and
approved by the physician cited
in the article, as well as by
Steven J. Davidson, MD, Chief
Medical Informatics Officer
It takes me about 45 minutes to get to work – on a good day. To take my mind off the long commute, I often listen to music on my iPhone. Last week, however, I almost missed my stop. Although I was awake and fully coherent, my mind was elsewhere. This is known as selective attention, and it may have more serious consequences than being late to work.
“How our brain processes and perceives information is still poorly understood,” explains Dr. Erich Anderer, a neurosurgeon at Maimonides. When we interact with the environment around us through sight, touch, smell, taste or sound, this information travels from the part of the body experiencing the sensation to our brain so that we can make sense of it. “The primary cortex essentially receives the information around us, but how it’s processed from there is the interesting part,” notes Dr. Anderer. “Each sense is perceived differently by a distinct part of the brain.”
We don’t process all of this information at once, or not with the same level of attention at least. Imagine walking through a busy intersection with car radios blaring, horns honking, lights flashing and people talking as they walk by. If we took in all of this information at once, we’d be overwhelmed. So, sometimes we consciously choose to not pay attention to something by ‘tuning out’ - while other times our brain will unconsciously flip between different stimuli. Although flipping attention between different stimuli has helped us in the past, we’ve begun to overcrowd our senses with our use of mp3 players and cell phones. Like what happened on the subway for me, our brain may be attributing more attention to what we’re listening to, and not to what we’re seeing.
A study from the University of Utah compared drivers who had phone conversations on hands-free phones in comparison to using regular hand-held cell phones. “The results showed that the hands-free driver was just as impaired as those using hand-held phones,” explains Dr. Anderer. “It is the conversation that takes away from a person’s attention – not the device itself.” You’d think most New Yorkers aren’t affected by this potential danger – right? Well if you’re talking on the phone or listening to music as you’re crossing the street your focus is inhibited. Speaking from experience, I’ve seen people almost walk out into oncoming traffic or run directly into someone on the street because they were distracted by the conversation they were having or song they were listening to.
While we can’t train ourselves to pay more attention to things, we can modify our environment to make it conducive to focusing our attention. “If you’re sitting down to do something important, don’t turn on the TV or listen to the music,” emphasizes Dr. Anderer. “It sounds obvious, but most people don’t do this.” Even getting in bed or turning out the lights can drain your attention, especially because it’s a mental cue for your brain to go to sleep.
While this may not stop me from listening to music on the subway, I may think twice before keeping my headphones in while crossing the street. What do you think? Have you ever had a ‘close call’ because you’ve been distracted by your phone or mp3 player?