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The Science of Distraction with Dr. Mark Williams – Episode 25

[00:05] Jenna: Hello happy people, and welcome to Office ADHD. Welcome everyone to Office ADHD. I am super excited to introduce you to Dr. Mark Williams. He is an expert in the field of neuroscience, including researching attention disorders. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

[00:32] Mark: Oh, no worries. Thank you very much for inviting me.

[00:35] Jenna: We have so many questions, and I wanted to start by unpacking this term that we keep hearing, neurodivergent. What does that really mean? It keeps getting thrown around with, like, ADHD and autism. What is that? What is it?

[00:52] Mark: Yeah, it's a great question. There's not really any good definition for it because it is one of those terms it's just thrown around all the time. I think they like to put it. As juxtaposition with neuro average or neurotypical. Which is supposedly what the majority of people are. The biggest problem I have with it is we know that everybody's brain is different. Everybody's brains develop based on their experiences, and all our experiences are completely different. And we know neuroplasticity is occurring all throughout our lives. So there is huge differences just in normal so called neurotypical brains. So, yeah, neurodivergent, I think, is this new term. Rather than labeling people ADHD or labeling them autism spectrum, they now use the term neurodivergent to just sort of have an overall label for all of those disorders. But yeah, there really isn't any good definition for it because it's really something that's just thrown around in the popular media, but it's not really a clinical definition, so it's hard to pinpoint what they mean.

[02:07] Jenna: One of those terms that was not made by a neuroscientist exactly.

[02:12] Mark: Yeah, one has become very popular, but yeah, no one really knows what they're talking about.

[02:18] Jenna: So what is kind of going on in an ADHD brain that makes it operate differently?

[02:26] Mark: Yeah, that's a great question. Again, it's hard to because humans are all so different and we all develop differently and our development of the brain is really dependent on our experiences, most of it's dependent on our experiences. So all brains are really different and all ADHD brains. Anybody who's been diagnosed with ADHD, if you look at two individuals, they're very different in both their behavior and in the brain development. But there are some things that are very typical about ADHD, and that's how they're usually diagnosed. And one of those is the prefrontal cortex, which is a frontal area of the brain which controls our attentional network and controls our abilities to inhibit responses and therefore concentrate on one thing at a time and not get distracted by external stimuli. That area of the brain seems to be hyperactive in people with ADHD, so they tend to be more aware of what's going on around them and flick from one thing to another based on external stimuli, rather than being able to just concentrate and block that out, which is the slight difference that we see in ADHD. Another one is there seems to be less activity in areas of inhibition where you actually inhibit responses and stop yourself from doing things. And so that seems to be under regulated in people with ADHD. So they're more likely to do things impulsively rather than actually think about it first and then do it. They tend to do things and then consider the consequences rather than considering the consequences first.

[04:20] Jenna: It just made me think of a really I was just thinking because like you were talking about with everyone's brains being so different, I know you look at a lot of averages to determine whether someone is like, this is less regulated, more regulated. Have you ever actually seen anyone's brain that was like almost exactly at the averages?

[04:44] Mark: No.

[04:47] Jenna: I was just curious because I was thinking that we all have this image of somebody being like you said, neurotypical or normal and I was just like but like you said, everyone's so different. It was just image in my head. I wondered if anybody actually is almost the average.

[05:06] Mark: No, not really. I mean, even within different races, an Asian brain compared to a Caucasian brain is very different in its actual shape. What those brains are capable of doing is exactly the same, but the actual shape. So when you look at them, they look quite different because of the shape of the skull and the head. So yeah, no, I've never gone and looked at a brain and gone, wow, that's beautiful. The average, they're all very different.

[05:47] Jenna: That's awesome. Now, I know that you run a lot of amazing programs that you do for schools, businesses and other groups and so some of them are on learning and things like that. Do you have any tips for those of us with attention disorders when we're approaching education and learning?

[06:08] Mark: Yeah, I work a lot actually with School psychologists on setting up classrooms and actually helping kids with ADHD or with autism as well, being able to concentrate better. So one of the things is not to have too many things that can actually attract your attention. So your attention, most people think of attention as this one generic thing, but our attention, we've got two different aspects of our attention which are really important to understand. And one is what we call exogenous attention, which is the external stuff that captures our attention. And there's four main things that do that, that capture our attention. That's whether you got ADHD or not. And those are faces, colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows as you'd expect, because that's what we now use for safety Warnings and all those sorts of things. And then movement and sound.

[07:09] Mark: And so those are the three things that really capture our exogenous attention and they're really hard for us to inhibit those things from actually capturing our attention. And that's much harder in someone who has ADHD than what we call a neurotypical, if you like. Although as I said, I don't really like that term at all. So eliminating those things from the environment when you're actually trying to concentrate and learn, because learning requires you to have and hold information in your working memory, and your working memory is really capacity limited. So your working memory only has what we call seven slots. So you can only hold seven items in your working memory at any one time. And your working memory is basically what you're thinking about right now People think about it as consciousness, if you like, but it's what you're aware of. Now to learn something, you have to hold that information in that working memory for long enough to then it be transferred to a temporary store, so then it can be transferred to your long term memory. And if you get distracted by something, if your attention moves, because your attention basically decides what's in your long term what's in your working memory. And so if your attention gets distracted by one of those four things, then everything in your working memory gets wiped and the last 90 seconds of what you were doing gets wiped as well. So you lose the last 90 seconds of what you're actually thinking about. And so what we need to do is set up environments where there's not things that are going to distract us. And that's both for normal people and for ADHD people. It's just people with ADHD are more susceptible to that than a normal person, but it's really important for everybody. So having an environment where you're not constantly being distracted. One of the things that I find really funny is a lot of teachers will take the naughty, the kids that are disruptive, which unfortunately tend to be the ADHD kids, and they'll put them at the front of the class because they can then keep an eye on them. And they think that's less distractive. But that actually makes it much harder for someone with ADHD to concentrate because, as I said, noise and movement captures our attention and noise and movement capture our attention because from an evolutionary point of view, we want to know when there's a snake slithering up behind us or we want to know when there's a lion hiding somewhere in the jungle. Now, if you're at the front of the class and you're being told you've got to look forward the whole time. And you've got a whole bunch of people behind you moving and making noises constantly, your brain is constantly telling you there's something behind you you've got to look at. There's something behind you you've got to look at, right? And so that makes it really hard for them to concentrate. So it's much better to actually put someone with ADHD at the back of the class so they're constantly looking in front of them, and if there is a noise, they can attend to it and go, it's just the person over there. I don't have to worry about it rather than being constantly concerned and have their Amygdala and all those areas going off. So it's really important to think about things like that when you've got ADHD or something like that, where your attention network is hyperactive. And so therefore it's constantly trying to work out what's in the environment that's going to potentially cause a problem and factor that into the way you set up the classroom.

[10:35] Jenna: That's amazing. I need to make a chart that just says, okay, faces, movement, sound, color. And then just I almost want to walk around my house now and just be like, okay in the office and just think, okay, what colors are there around? Where is there a picture of a face? Or where are there just different things that are making that? I don't know. Where are they?

[11:03] Mark: Yeah. When I go into classrooms, especially in primary schools, a lot of the teachers will have things hanging up across they'll have a piece of string across the classroom or multiple strings across the classroom, and they'll hang up the work of the students to make them feel as though they're part of it and all of that, which is really nice. But then every time there's a little bit of wind or every time somebody moves around, those things actually move. And every time they move, all the students automatically attend to them because they're moving and movement captures our attention. So just little things like that don't. Have things that can actually move in. The wind because they are going to move and you're going to then attract all everyone's attention. But then it's going to affect those with ADHD more than your supposed neurotypicals in classroom, but it will affect all of them. And you've also got to remember that our prefrontal cortex, so this area that is most affected with ADHD actually isn't fully developed until we're 25 years of age. So even in normal kids, they're going to have attentional problems as well. It's just going to be more obvious or more extreme in someone with ADHD. But all kids are going to have issues with attention problems like that.

[12:22] Jenna: That's crazy.

[12:25] Mark: So there's lots of tricks.

[12:27] Jenna: That's great because on top of the learning, you also have a program that's just all about becoming more productive. Does that kind of build into that? What kind of ideas do you bring up in that about?

[12:39] Mark: Yeah, so that's one of them. Another really cool way to be more productive is one of the biggest problems with productivity because productivity has fallen right off in the last 1015 years. And the biggest problem with that is of course, the way we're using devices these days. So I talk a lot about how we can do digital differently where we're not actually being distracted constantly by the devices. So we know if you've got your phone well, if you have your cell phone and you turn it off and you put it into your glove box. When you're driving, for example, we know that 10% of your attention is still on your phone. That's in your glove box, even though it's turned off and in your glove box, that's how good they are at capturing our attention. So anybody with any sort of attentional disorder, that's going to be far, far worse. And that's when it's turned off and in your glove box. And that's equivalent to having one standard drink. So you're equivalent to having one standard. Drink if you have your phone near. You and it's turned off. And so any student or anybody around, yeah, they're amazingly good at capturing our attention. So if you actually want to get. All your attention back, you've really got to turn it off and put it in another room where you can't actually access it. And then you'll actually get all your. Attention back and you'll be able to work better. But we also know just having your phone there actually affects if it's close by and it's turned off, it significantly. Affects your intelligence and it significantly affects. Your working memory, which I was talking. About before, which is what's necessary for you to learn. So you have more trouble learning, you have more trouble attending when your phone's. Just near you and turned off, if. You turn it on, it's even far worse. And every time you get a beep or a buz or anything on your phone, your attention automatically goes to it. And that, again, results in you losing the last 90 seconds of whatever you are doing because you've just wiped your working memory. And so every time that happens, you lose 90 seconds of your time for that day. And you can imagine how many times. You get a beep or a buz. Or a little icon jumps on your. Laptop or your computer. Every time that happens, you lost the last 90 seconds. And so that's a lot of time we're losing just by having the notifications on. And you can just turn all your notifications off. So I have all my notifications turned off on my phone, and all my notifications turned off on all my things on my computer so that I don't get distracted. And then I just factor into my day. I put in my diary when I'm going to check my email and I check my email three times a day and that's the only time I check my email. And then I'll check things like LinkedIn. And social media and stuff twice a Day, and that's the only time I do those. And that means that I'm actually working and thinking all the rest of the Time and I'm not getting any notifications About any of those things during those periods because I know that every time I get a notification, I'm losing time And I'm losing that ability to be productive But that's a great way to really get back time. Yeah, another really good thing, and I do it a lot with kids with ADHD is using Pomodoro Technique. I know you've heard of pomodoro. Pomodoro technique, it's a scientifically proven way to actually be more productive during the day and to increase your attentional mechanism, so increase the strength of those areas of your brain which are involved in tension And so what you do is it's Called pomodoro because it was done originally by a bunch of Italian scientists, and They used these timers that they use in a kitchen in Italy which is shaped like tomatoes, and pomodoro means tomato, so they call them pomodoros Yeah So that's why it's called the Pomodoro technique. Basically, for an adult, you just set A timer for 25 minutes and you Have the timer there so you can See the time ticking down And then you focus on just one task for that whole 25 minutes. You've got to get rid of your Phone and you've got to turn off All your notifications, and you've got to just focus on that one task for that 25 minutes When the 25 minutes is up, the Timer buzzes, and you just get up And move for five minutes So do squats or do star jumps Or jumping jacks or whatever you want to do, and then go back. After five minutes, you go back and you do another 25 minutes, focusing on. One thing and one thing only. And then you do have another five. Minute break, and you do that four times, and that gives you 2 hours of concentrated work. And after that 2 hours, then you have a much longer break where you. Can do other things such as check your email or check your social media or check teams or whatever it is you need to do, which is distracting, which is going to cause problems for your attention. Then do something physical. So go for a quick walk or do some jumping jacks or whatever again, and then go back to work and do it again. Now, it's been shown to be the most productive way to actually set out. I do that two hour session every morning, and I get more done during that two hour session than I do for the rest of the day because of the fact that I'm able to just focus, getting distracted constantly. But people I work with, as I said, kids with ADHD and what we do with kids with ADHD or kids with autism, is we set the timer for a really short period of time that they can do easily. So we'll set it for 1 minute. Or two minutes or three minutes, and then we slowly increase it. So you slowly increase it over a term or a year until they're able To concentrate for a longer period of time. Because your brain is plastic, right? Your brain is able to change itself. It's just like any other muscle. If you use it, then it gets better, and if you don't use it, then it slowly Adriennes. So we've got to realize that we've got to keep constantly using our brains. We got to constantly keep using the things that we actually want to improve. So with kids, we just started a really short period. And I've had kids who have been through we've had lots of trouble just getting into class and they've been very disruptive. And then the two or three terms Of slowly increasing it, they're able to concentrate for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, without any problems at all. And I actually had one girl that her teacher emailed me about six months after we started this program with their school, and she said this girl was a troll and her parents really didn't know what to do about it. And now she gets upset on a Saturday because she's not allowed to go to school, because she enjoys school so much, because she's actually been she's learning, and she's able to be a member of the class, and she's a new member of that community. And she's respected in that environment because she's able to sit there and actually concentrate during the class, and she's getting stuff done, and she's learning how to read and do all these things. So it's a great way to slowly increase your ability to attend for longer, or anybody's ability to attend for longer. And it's a great way to actually be productive during the day if you're an adult, or once you get it up to that longer period of time, you can be really productive with it So those are two really easy ways.

[19:36] Mark: Another really cool one for kids we go to is in classrooms or home with parents, if they want the kids to actually sit and study, for example, is to get pedals, so you can get just pedals that you can put underneath the desk, and they can then just pedal on the pedals like they're riding a bonnet. And it means that they're actually doing something physical, but it doesn't disturb anyone else in the class, and it also doesn't interrupt them, so it doesn't attract their attention. So things like fidget, spinners and stuff Will actually attract your attention, so it's Not as good for learning. And it will actually fidget, spinners and so on will actually disrupt other members of the class as well because again, it's movement and it's usually noise as well. Whereas these, because they're underneath the desk, no one can see them. And these kids can actually just move Constantly because they've got the pedals to Pedal on, and so they're able to concentrate for longer and they don't get as agitated during their class. So it's another really and they're very cheap, actually. Why? So schools should invest in them and parents should invest in them. Kids will sit there at their desk and wax for a lot longer than they would if they didn't have something to do under the desk.

[20:53] Jenna: That's a great idea. And like you said, that's something that not expensive. You could just get cheap put under your desk. And then even if you're typing at a computer that frees up your hands. You're not fidgeting with your hands.

[21:07] Mark: Yeah, exactly. So you're not fidgeting with your hands. It's not something which will attract your Attention, so you're not affecting your attentional network And you get into exercise as well. So I do hear from different parents who get them and they say, yeah, it's great because they're basically running constantly while they're working. This is also a positive parent.

[21:33] Jenna: Everyone wins.

[21:35] Mark: Everyone wins.

[21:40] Jenna: One of the things I'm also really excited about is that you have a book coming out called The Connected Species. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that and kind of what inspired you to write that book?

[21:51] Mark: So why did I write this book? It's a book I've been meaning to write for a long time. It's based on a lot of the original research that I did and have done over the last 25 years. And then during COVID I had a lot of time on my hands. So I decided to sit down and finally actually write the book, which was very therapeutic for me. And it's fantastic now because it's about To be released, which is awesome. It's called The Connected Species because it's all about the fact that we as a species have got to where we are today because of our connections, because of the fact that we collaborate with each other and we actually work together to the betterment of all of us. And we have done that for thousands and thousands of generations. For millions of years. We're not the fastest, we're not the most intelligent, and we're not the strongest animal out there. What we are is the most connected animal out there. There's no other species on this Earth that collaborates across groups the way we do. My computer is made up of parts and bits and pieces that come from all over the world. It's the result of hundreds of generations of people working on new technological advances that have resulted in this computer that I now have. Even animals that are in large groups, such as bees or ants or other insects, they don't collaborate across groups. They collaborate within them. You don't see one beehive collaborating with another beehive. Yet we, as humans, do that. We do that, and we do that very, very well. And we do that because our brains have been evolved to allow us to do that. Our brains have evolved to enable us to automatically detect and understand facial expressions, to detect and recognize and remember different faces and different people. To mimic each other's facial expressions so that we understand what we're feeling and what the other person is feeling. To mimic each other's body language so that we can connect with each other. We have special C fibers in our skin which activate special neurotransmitters in our brain called Oxytocin, which actually makes us connect with each other better, makes us more open to having connections and collaborations with each other. And they come about just because of touch, which is why in all societies, we have different forms of touch to enable us to actually have those neurotransmitters released. And so connecting face to face is so important for us as a species. In actual fact, loneliness, not actually connecting with someone, not having people in your life that you can actually relate to and you can rely on resulting death, is actually really bad for us to be lonely. Which is why things like isolation are so, so terrible for us as individuals. Because when we're alone, we feel lonely. And that results in a whole bunch of not only mental health issues, but also physiological issues, physical issues that result in us dying earlier than we would otherwise. So we need to connect. We need to have that connection. And we don't get that when we're online, which I think is a huge problem at the moment. So when we're online, we have little bits of neurotransmitters released. Dopamine is one of them, which creates this need for more of it. It causes addiction and it requires a drive for us to go back to being online. But we don't get things like Oxytocin, which we get from touch, we don't get things like Serotonin, which we get from Joy, actually spending time with people. And we don't get the endorphins that are really important as well and make us feel connected to other people. So we need those things. In the book, I talk about the difference between fast food and a home cooked meal. Fast food such as going to McDonald's, it results in dopamine as well. Very similar effect. But of course it gives you that hit of sugar, but then you don't feel very good afterwards. And you can't survive on something like McDonald's forever. Whereas having a home cooked meal, it takes more effort, it's harder, but it results in a lot more nutrients and more sustainable. And it's something that will actually keep us healthy more long term. And that's how I like to think about connecting with someone online versus connecting with someone face to face. When you connect online, you only have some neurotransmitters released. When you connect face to face, you have this swarm of neurotransmitters released which actually help us to survive and help us to connect with each other and help us collaborate. And if you look at the 21st century skills, the things that we're actually going to need and the next generation are going to need, they are always focused on things like emotional intelligence, empathy, ability to lead, ability to collaborate, ability to be innovative. All of these things require us to understand how each of us is feeling, to actually connect with each other on a real level, face to face. And so the things that students and things that the next generation need to learn are things that you get from actually working with someone face to face and actually working with them on a project, not being online. And so we need a big change.

[27:35] Mark: We need a big change in society. I think we're at a real crossroads at the moment, which is what the book is about and we need to make a decision. Are we going to keep going down the road that we're going down where multinational tech companies are making billions and billions of dollars out of our attention when we get nothing benefit from that? Or are we going to make a change and actually start rewarding everybody for the amount of work they put into their lives rather than benefiting the very few who are being very unethical about. The way they're going about making money. At the moment through this different social media platforms. So yeah, we need a change and of course a lot of that stuff came from them. But the fact that I originally was. Doing research in autism and I realized that we didn't actually know a lot about how a normal brain actually did these things, did these really important social connection. So I went into looking at normals and then looked at a lot of other patient groups as well. So that's where a lot of this work has actually come from.

[28:49] Jenna: You know, it's amazing because sometimes I know I'll be home and I'll be like I don't know if I want to go get ready to go out and go do something. But once you actually go out and you're with people and you go play a game or just go do something, go bowling or whatever, then you really do feel so much better, so much more uplifted just being face to face with somebody.

[29:12] Mark: Going out and actually spending time with people is extremely important for us as connected species. More of our brain is actually activated when we are actually with someone and actually working with them or collaborating with them or talking to them than anything else we can do. Our brain is based on a user or loser, same as all of our muscles. So if we're actually using our brain it actually gets stronger. You can decrease your likelihood of getting neurodegenerative diseases if you're actually using your brain and using it regularly. And it can help with a whole bunch of potential mental health illnesses as well. And the best way to actually exercise your brain is actually to spend time with people, to actually socialize, go bowling with someone, go for a walk with someone and have a chat, have a coffee with someone, have a beer with someone. Those things are better for your brain than anything else you can actually do. And so what we need to be doing is spending more time with people. It is difficult sometimes and it is a struggle sometimes but it's so, so important for us. As a connected species to actually spend time with people. And it has so many benefits, including mental health benefits, both short term and long term.

[30:31] Jenna: And I like to give all my guests a chance to just send out a few words of just encouragement or something that you'd like to say to anyone in the audience that might be kind of struggling with how they fit into the world, just with their attention disorders and kind of accepting themselves. Is there any kind of message you'd like to send out?

[30:50] Mark: I think what I'd like everyone to realize is that we are all different. And I've seen a lot of brains and I've never seen two brains that are the same. Every brain you see is like a fingerprint. Every brain is different. And there's a lot of pigeonholing that goes on, especially in the medical fraternity. But we need to realize that those pigeonholes are just ways of simply categorizing. Different groups of people. But within those groups, there's so much difference as well, that each individual is their own person and each individual has amazing talents and amazing things to actually offer the world. And where's connected species, that's how we've thrived, is we've given each individual the opportunity to contribute to society and we need to continue to do that and not to segregate in a way that's actually detrimental to us as a species. And also we need to realize that each individual has to be different because each individual's experiences are different. And our brains develop based on our experiences. The genetic material that we have that's passed on to us from our parents, that actually determines our eye color and our skin color and how tall we're going to be and whether we'll be male or female or whatever, there's very Limited amount of data there. And so that doesn't determine our personality, that doesn't determine our intellect, that doesn't determine our ability to be empathic with others, and so on. All of that is learned, those abilities are learned. Our intelligence changes a huge amount during our childhood years, during our teenage years, and during our adult years. And so we need to realize that our brains are constantly changing based on our experiences and those experiences are different For all of us. And so therefore, all of our brains are very different. And what we have and what we can contribute to society is going to be different for all of us. And it's all important because we need all those differences to have an amazing group of people who can all work together to benefit society as a whole. So we're all important and we can all contribute.

[33:14] Jenna: Love it. Thank you so much. Well, and thank you again so much for coming on the show today.

[33:19] Mark: It's been really great to meet Jenna. Thanks for having me along. Hopefully we can chat again some stage soon.

[33:25] Jenna: Thanks, it's been a great pleasure. Thanks so much for listening to learn more about anything we talked about today, head over to Remember to, like, subscribe and share and have a great day. We'll see you next time.

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