The Weird Way Being Distracted Affects Your Entire Body, According To Science

by JR Thorpe
Ashley Batz/Bustle

Everybody gets distracted every so often. You're trying to focus on something important and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself staring at a cute cat or, realistically, scrolling through Twitter without taking in even one piece of information. Being distracted is pretty psychologically fascinating; humans encounter millions of bits of stimuli every day, from visuals to sounds and smells, and our filtering of attention is neurologically complex. So what happens when our attempt to focus goes wrong — and what occurs in your body once you're off staring out the window?

There's a lot of research about how to improve your focus (and thereby, be less distracted). The ability to enter tunnel vision and devote yourself to one particular task for hours on end is a much-lauded one, but distraction has its place, too, and the body and the brain do some interesting things while the brain veers off-course. Distraction can become debilitating in excess — hence why people with attention-deficit disorder experience difficulties with absorbing information in "traditional" ways. But in moderate levels, distraction provides an interesting insight into how we look at the world around us — and what happens when we can't shut out the sparkly thing at the edge of our vision. Here's what happens in your body when you get distracted.


Your Sense Of Smell Is Impacted

In 2018, scientists discovered that when you're distracted, you experience a severe dent in your ability to smell. It's called "inattentional anosmia," or smell blindness, and it appears to be tied strongly to our focus. According to the results of the 2018 study, if we're distracted by something else in the room, like a task that requires a lot of attention, we're very unlikely to notice a strong smell — even one that's really hard to ignore, like coffee. The more we're distracted, the less capable we are of paying attention to scents.

This is another piece of evidence for a theory called "perceptual load." It basically says that our attention depends heavily on how much of a "load" we're carrying in terms of brain activity and stimuli. Being distracted by something "fills up" our perceptual load, according to this new study, and doesn't leave any space for noticing strong smells. It's not clear if this applies to dangerous smells like smoke, though.


Your Brain Seesaws Between The Task & The Outer World

There used to be a pretty standard idea about distraction: that you'd become more distractible as the thing in front of you became more difficult. But a study in 2016 found that's not actually the case, and that things that are easier often make us a bit more distracted, as do tasks we're really not motivate to do. What does seem clear, though, is that the brain maintains some kind of equilibrium between the task in front of you and the "rest of the world" — and that the more distracted you are, the more stimuli from your environment creep in. If you're heavily motivated or the task is difficult, the 2016 study says, your brain puts its balance more towards the task itself. Without those factors, though, it starts to "open up" to distractions.


You May Be Experiencing A Creative Burst

A 2015 study published in Neuropsychogia found something fascinating about very creative people in history, like that of Marcel Proust: they were often hugely distractible, because their brains wouldn't stop accepting lots of different information even when they were trying very hard to focus. This doesn't mean that you're a genius if you can't sit down to something without getting immediately sidetracked. But it does give us insight into something interesting that happens in the creative brain when it's distracted.

The creativity that comes from distractibility, the people behind the 2015 study noted, was often about coping with "leaky" sensory perception. In other words, Proust and his creative colleagues weren't filtering out irrelevant information — but their brains then found ways to use that new information in what they were doing. Distraction became fuel for new perspectives. And that indicates that perhaps distraction is good for us; creativity has helped us survive as a species, so a bit of fresh thinking does us good.


You May Experience Greater Pain Relief

The interaction between the distracted brain and the senses is an odd one, but it becomes even odder once you look at the research about distraction and pain. According to numerous studies, being distracted actually acts as pain relief. This is why your dad might have told you a silly joke or said "what's that?!" while pulling out a splinter; distraction, with its confusion of sensory stimuli, lowers our experience of pain when we're experiencing something unpleasant.

Mental distraction tasks are now occasionally assigned to people who've undergone a medical procedure to help them feel a bit less achey afterwards. And it's an important thing to remember if you're prone to period pain or something else — directing your attention to something else can genuinely help.