Distractibility can be adaptive!

True, you’ve been reading about all the ways distractibility is maladaptive – as it is correlated with a lower working memory span and interrupts the sustained concentration and task immersion needed to learn new, difficult or abstract material.

But on the other hand, it may also have evolved as an adaptive trait. An ancestor who was too immersed in their work tasks might have missed the toddler who wandered away from the camp, or is about to fall in the campfire or the river. Today, someone too immersed in their mobile phone while walking might walk into a wall, or into passersby, or into traffic. Obviously not adaptive.

The dimension of distractibility as a trait is one of the nine temperament traits found in babies and children, which are thought to have a biological origin. Even as a child, as soon as I could read, I could read anywhere in my noisy home filled with six kids, the noise never distracted me, and I would become so immersed in my book that I wouldn’t hear my mother or teacher call my name, much less an emergency or a sibling’s prank. (Not adaptive!)

Another possible upside to Distractibility is its relationship with creativity. Sustained concentration may be the magic key to high grades, but may not be so helpful for enhancing creative ideas and decision making.  High distractibility may do more than help us save the wandering toddler; there is a correlation between distractibility and creativity. The divergent thinking typical of creativity is a kind of thinking that happens in a spontaneous, non-linear, often seemingly unconnected stream of ideas (called stimulus-independent-thought, SIT). Maybe many of us have tangential associations and great ideas flowing “in the back of our minds”, but our strong focus on our tasks prevents us from noticing or attending to these great ideas. Creative people have often noted that their breakthrough insights or “Eureka” moments happen when they are not focused on a work task, when they are doing simple well-learned actions, when they are daydreaming, on the weekends or vacation, and they have the mental space to attend to and remember their loosely connected ideas and images.

Robson, D. (n.d.). Why getting distracted can be a very good thing. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story