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Mark Leary Ph.D.
Mark Leary Ph.D.

Distracted From Life

The hazards of self-preoccupation

Source: timurtuchkin/Shutterstock

We’re in the middle of another hot, grueling summer, which is inevitably accompanied by tragic reports of children dying in hot cars. If 2017 is typical, about 40 kids will die in hot cars this year. In some cases, parents have intentionally left children in the car while they went off to do something else, but often parents or other caregivers simply forgot that the child was in the car.

Already this summer, a hospital CEO, who was supposed to drop her 7-month daughter at the babysitter's on the way to work, discovered the baby’s body in the car that evening. A 5-month-old died in Idaho when the mother’s boyfriend left the child in the vehicle and lost track of time. And a 5-year-old boy in Arkansas died after being left alone in a day-care van.

Many people find these events incomprehensible. People accidentally leave their cell phone or glasses in the car, but a child? It might be possible to dismiss these cases as the actions of uncaring, neglectful, or stupid people, except that they are often good parents and respected professionals.

Although we don’t know exactly what was going on when these people got out of their cars and walked away, their minds were clearly somewhere else. Maybe they were thinking about the workday, or about problems they were facing at home. Maybe they were preoccupied with their financial situation, planning a vacation, or thinking about other stresses in their life. Whatever was on their mind, their attention was focused on something other than what it should have been focused on at that moment.

But that’s the case with most of us much of the time. Our minds are often not on what we’re doing. Fortunately, the consequences are rarely as tragic as accidentally leaving a child in the car, but preoccupation takes a toll nonetheless.

All of us live in two worlds — the “real” world of objects, people, and events, and the mental world of our thoughts, plans, memories, ruminations, worries, and daydreams. As we go through each day, we constantly shift our attention back-and-forth between these outer and inner worlds, and our experience of life is an ongoing, interwoven meld of the external physical world and our internal self-focused thoughts.

Our inner thoughts have a great deal of power over us, including the power to distract us from the real world. Although these thoughts are sometimes useful, a great deal of our self-talk is not only totally unnecessary, but also distracts us from life in the external world.

People have only a limited capacity for attention. Paying attention to one thing necessarily prevents us from paying complete attention to anything else. When we are preoccupied with our self-thoughts, we are not able to focus fully on the world, or on what we are doing. You have probably had the experience of walking or driving from one place to another so absorbed in thought that you arrived with no memory whatsoever of the sights along the way. The fact that you navigated successfully from one place to another while lost in thought is a testament to your ability to function on automatic pilot, but your self-talk pushed out the sights and sounds of the real world.

Although our self-preoccupation rarely has consequences as tragic as leaving a child in a hot car, being distracted by our minds can undermine the quality of our lives in other ways. Our self-preoccupation can undermine our performance at work and in school, as it not only takes our attention away from what we are doing, but also wastes time while we ruminate about things other than the task at hand. (Mind-wandering has an incalculable economic impact.)

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Lost in Thought) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Lost in Thought) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Self-thoughts also hamper our ability to be fully engaged in interactions with other people. Think about times in which you simply couldn’t pay attention and respond appropriately to what others were saying, because you were thinking about other things.

We’ve known for many years that unnecessary self-talk can interfere with sport performance, leading people to choke under pressure. Self-created distraction promotes forgetfulness and mistakes. You have difficulty focusing on what you’re doing when your mind is somewhere else, which leads to carelessness.

Perhaps worst of all, being distracted by our mind can lead us to miss large portions of our own life. We can’t live our life fully when our mind is somewhere else.

About the Author
Mark Leary Ph.D.

Mark Leary, Ph.D., is the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Curse of the Self.

Duke University