And now we focus on distractions

Maria Isabel Garcia
And now we focus on distractions
'Before we even know we are being distracted by something, another distraction comes along'

I think aside from death and taxes, the other thing that is certain are distractions. And modern living screams and is democratic with all sorts of distractions. (READ: Adulting 101: Improve your well-being by putting your phone down)

In the age of mobile phones, we live amidst a sea of both dialogues and halfalogues. In public places and work places where you do not have your own nook, you become an unconsenting witness to conversations betweentwo or more people. And as if that were not bad or awkward enough, you are also there to hear “halfalogues.”  

Halfalogues are those conversations where you only hear one side because the other side is being delivered through a mobile phone. Something like these lines below, all coming from one person you hear talking to her mobile phone:

Oh hi!
(7-second lapse))
(5-second lapse)
What did you tell him?
(7-second lapse)
And did he?
(3-second lapse)
But how?
(7-second lapse)
Oh but that is another story…
(3-second lapse)
OMG, you did what?

Anyone who writes regularly knows that they have to train themselves to tune out. There is no one-size-fits-all ritual, but if you have been working out this kind of dedicated mind space for yourself for a long time, you know that a big part of it means tuning out all distractions when you have to write. (READ: The mind distracted: Technology’s battle for our attention)

Many times in my writing life, I cannot choose the space where I can do this, especially when I am traveling. But I am not very good at tuning out language. I can tune out other kinds of noises, but I easily get distracted by conversations, most especially those in languages that I am familiar with and understand. But hearing a halfalogue has always driven me more nuts than hearing all the sides of actual conversations between two or more people. In fact, I just find it impossible to focus on my writing when I hear a halfalogue. But why? 

It is easy to blame cellphones. After all, they are what makes it possible for people to talk to someone even if that person is unseen and unheard by anyone else. But it really all boils down to how our brains pay attention and get distracted. (READ: #HustleEveryday: How to be productive when working from home)

A study in 2010 had found that people indeed are really more distracted by halfalogues than dialogues. They are not only more distracted but they did more poorly in the tasks they have been instructed to do when they could hear these halfalogues. The researchers think it is because we are wired to make sense of the noise that we hear and that “making sense” includes a general sense of where we think the conversation is about and where it is going. That is easy to do with dialogues, but halfalogues are half-naked events. They have so many possible directions. That is why they are more distracting.

Hafalogues possess a kind of unpredictability that jams our brains because it splinters our attention in many directions so there is no one destination. In a 2013 study, this was confirmed and it even found that we remember more from what was uttered in the halfalogue than from the actual conversations. Halfalogues grab our attention so much more, which is laughable if not sad because we would have needed that mind power to focus on our own task at hand.

At the time of this writing, I could not find a study on writers and how they focus and filter the noise, but there was one on athletes that found that they could turn down the background noise in their heads to focus on the relevant sound – much more compared to non-athletes. It even noted that other studies have found that while musicians focus by having the relevant sound turned up in their heads, the athletes are able to turn down sounds that are not relevant so that the essential stands out. 

Last year, scientists did a study that gained for us some insight into the circuitry that can cause us to filter the many sensory inputs so that we can focus. They found that it had to do with a circuitry in our pre-frontal cortex – our brain region for planning, processing information, and making decisions – that can silence certain signals from sensory inputs as they are fed to the thalamus, which is known to process all kinds of sensory inputs. 

But there is also some very interesting science as to what relationships do to our sense of focus, at least as far as sounds are concerned. There was a study that found that couples can recognize their spouse’s voice even in the presence of an interfering stranger’s voice. That speaks of closeness, but that is not the aha moment. The aha is that the study found that it is this very familiarity with the voice of their spouse that allows middle age couples to tune out their partners’ voice to focus more on what a stranger is saying at the same time. And the aha continues as the study found that as couples get older, the less they can tune out their spouse’s voice. 

I am sure each era in the entirety of human history has its own set of distractions. But the big defining feature of our era is the speed at which distractions zoom in and out of our lives. They steal our will in milliseconds, and before we even know we are being distracted by something, another distraction comes along. Distractions can spur creativity but only if you are able to net them, winnow the gems you need, and get back and focus on what you have to do.

Now enough of being distracted by this piece. Get some work done. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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