Richard G. Petty, MD

Teen Driving Risks

I have been very concerned about the burgeoning evidence of the dangers of being distracted while driving.

My concerns have been buttressed by a new report.

A national survey
of more than 5,600 high school students conducted by an alliance
between The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm
Insurance Companies indicates that
high school students are routinely driving under highly
dangerous conditions.

Teens who participated in the study say they routinely drive while fatigued and while talking on cell
phones, and that they let strong emotions cloud their judgment. Many also admitted that they are not wearing seatbelts.

The National Teen Driver Survey represents 10.6 million 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students in U.S. public high schools.

The survey results are available as a downloadable report on Keeping Young Drivers Safe,
a new Web site for parents and educators from the Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia/State Farm alliance. The site is packed with practical
information on developing a plan that will enable new drivers to
develop the skills and habits they need to stay safe.

You can also visit the site at, where you will find information on working with a new driver to set goals and
rules; developing a timeline for parent-guided driving lessons; and
developing a parent/teen driving agreement.

The Forty-Eight Minute Hour

Every teacher and lecturer knows that the attention span of the average student is about forty five minutes. It was always said that the reason for instituting 55 minute periods in
American public schools was a response to some psychological research
into the attention spans of American teenagers. There is also an urban legend that the length of time between television commercials was driven by research that purported to show that the attention span of the “average American” was six minutes.

Though some days I wonder if attention spans are down to the one minute duration of the commerical breaks!

The very term “attention span” is imprecise and driven by multiple variables including innate ability to hold attention, mood, time of day, plasma glucose level and our level of engagement in the material before us. You can do a brief test to measure your own attention span.

For the psychoanalyst, an hour is actually only 50 minutes. In the early days of psychoanalysis it was found empirically that this was the ideal duration of a psychotherapeutic session. It just so happened that it also gave the therapist time to decompress before the next session.

Several months ago I revealed that I have a “problem” called hyperfocus. It was my own chiropractor in Atlanta – Teresa Brennan – who pointed out that sitting immobile for hours at a time was not a good way to treat the spine. Exactly what I had been telling other people for years! So I installed a little free gizmo on my computer desktop that reminds me to get up and stretch every 50 minutes. And since then my productivity has soared.

So I was very pleased to see an article that strongly advocates the approach of working intensely for 48 minutes and then taking a 12 minute break before resuming work. I think that this makes very good sense, and if you are not happy with your own work habits or work output, I suggest that you give it a try.

From the psychological literature this duration seems to make sense. I also like that it introduces some balance into our work activities.

Though personally I would have preferred, perhaps, for the number to have been 42. Since that is, of course, the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (And Douglas, old friend, you are still missed.)

Or perhaps the number should have been 43.

After all, my name really is Richard Petty! (For readers outside North America: my namesake is a renowned former race car driver, but not, alas, a relative! His car was always number 43.)

Try the 48 minute approach and see if it works for you.

“Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.”

–Benjamin Franklin (American Author, Inventor and Diplomat, 1706-1790)

When Being Positive Can Be Negative

One of the points that we make in Healing, Meaning and Purpose is that the constant insistence by some people in the self-help business – that we should all be happy and positive in all that we do – can be very counter-productive.

Not only do some people operate best when they are being negative but it is very task dependent. If you are doing something tedious, trying artifically to create a smiley face may actually be the worst thing that you can do.

I have given a lot of ideas for finding out about your style and how to adapt and develop it.

There is some terrific new research in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that helps answer the age old question: does a good modd help when you are doing your job?

It is certainly true that happy thoughts can stimulate creativity, but for mundane work such as dredging through databases, it may be better to be cranky or sad.

The new study is the first to suggest that a positive frame of mind can have opposite effects on productivity depending on the nature of a task.

It is well known that stress, anxiety, depression or just a good old fashioned bad mood lead us to narrow our field of attention: we only think about and focus on the things directly in front of us. On the other hand, subjective well being is known to broaden our thinking and make us more creative. What nobody knew was whether a good mood expands people’s attention to visual details.

In this study, performed by Adam Anderson and his colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, 24 university students were asked to take two kinds of tests after listening to sad, happy, or neutral music. In one test, the students were asked to think of unusual words, to test their ability to think broadly.

As expected, those who had listened to happy music and who claimed to be in a better mood were more successful in recalling unusual words than the other two groups who listened to sad or neutral music.

In the second test, the students were presented with a row of three letters and asked to ignore everything except for the letter in the middle. This is a well-known test designed to measure the breadth of their visual attention and ability to focus on what was in front of them. This time, the happy music students were 40% more likely to be distracted by the unnecessary flanking information than students who had listened to the sad music.

Your attention acts like a torch or the beam of a spotlight. A good mood broadens the beam so that you see more things than usual. Including all the distractions and the irrelevant data.

So being a bit grumpy and irritable when you have to do your tax returns is probably the best way to get through the task quickly and with as few errors as possible.


Here’s a study that came I under the radar, but is an important contribution to our on-going discussions about the perils of multi-tasking.

Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at my alma mater in London did a most interesting study funded by, of all people, Hewlett Packard.

It was a postal study carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and the main finding was that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence.

Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls were fond to have a 10-point fall in their IQ. That would be more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. People who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind and the brain as losing a night’s sleep

More than half of the 1,100 respondents said they always responded to an email "immediately" or as soon as possible, with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so.

Do we really need any more evidence to confirm the dangers of multitasking and constant partial attention?

I don’t think so.

Therefore I’m going to continue to publish tips and techniques for dealing with the barrage of information that threatens to drown us.

Even before the oceans begin to rise….

More on the Perils of Multi-Tasking

I have talked before about the perils of multi-tasking and partial attention.

New research by Professor David Strayer at the University of Utah has confirmed previous research indicating that speaking on a mobile phone is at least as dangerous as driving while over the legal alcohol limit. The research is published in the journal Human Factors. Cell phones are so distracting because of a phenomenon called "inattention blindness," where the drivers enter a kind of "virtual reality" with the person they’re talking to. In the research, the drivers who talked on phones remembered half as many of the objects they looked at compared to those who were driving without talking on phones. Furthermore, the drivers did not even realize that they weren’t really "seeing" everything in front of them on the road: they thought they were driving perfectly safely. So it is likely that using a cell phone – even a hands free model – is considerably more distracting even than eating or drinking while driving.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can safely juggle driving and your cell phone: you may drop one or the other.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
— Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

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Multiple Selves

There is a most interesting report from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This study relates back to some of my previous posts about meditation and hyperfocus. I think that we’ve all had the experience of losing ourselves in any activity: playing a game, watching a movie, sex or an enthralling novel. The researchers showed that during intense sensory tasks, the introspective self-related functions of the brain shut down. The experimental subjects were asked to look at pictures or listen to music. For sensory processing, the subjects were asked to answer yes/no questions about the items. To study introspection, the subjects were asked to indicate whether emotionally they felt strongly or neutrally about the image or musical passage. While they were doing all this, their brains were being scanned using functional MRI (fMRI).

As expected, regions of the brain activated during sensory processing or self-reflective introspection were quite distinct and segregated. Sensory processing activated the sensory cortex and related structures, while introspection activated the prefrontal cortex. But the important finding was that activity in the self-related prefrontal cortex was damped down during intense sensory processing. What this seems to indicate, is that the self-related cortex isn’t involved in the awareness of perceptions, but is involved in allowing us to reflect upon perceptions, to judge their importance to us, and to allow us to report our experiences to the outside world.

I have a quibble with something that they say at the end of the paper: “Thus, the term “losing yourself” receives here a clear neuronal correlate. This theme has a tantalizing echoing in Eastern philosophies such as Zen teachings, which emphasize the need to enter into a “mindless,” selfless mental state to achieve a true sense of reality.”

As interesting as the study is, I think that these comments betray a rather one-dimensional view of the “self.” There are clearly many aspects to the “self:”

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychological: the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious Selves
  • Relational: (Have a look back at my post form March 15th
  • Subtle
  • Spiritual

My 35-year experience and understanding of the Eastern traditions is not of simply switching off one or other of these “selves,” but of bringing full mindful attention to everything that is going on. I just came across a brief piece by Professor Charles Tart , in which he is saying something very similar, and points out, with characteristic wit, that the Eastern mindfulness teachings don’t require us to enter into a “mindless” state to find reality. After all, if you are belabored about the head and shoulders with a stout cudgel, that should also achieve that aim!

So we return to a theme on which I’ve been expounding for some time now: these studies are fascinating and interesting, but they only deal with one part of the human experience. Let me refer you back to Ken Wilber for his important views on this issue, and the long section in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, that discusses this in considerable detail. The neurological findings represent correspondences and not causes.

Another blogger, Neurocritic, picked up an amusing error in a report of this study in New Scientist . Well spotted!

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“Success isn’t magic or hocus-pocus its simply learning how to focus.” –Jack Canfield (American Motivational Speaker, Author and Trainer, 1944-)

We have all been taught the importance of focusing to learn and to get jobs done. But there is also a problem that we call hyperfocus. This phenomenon has been known for centuries; in fact the Athenian Philosopher Socrates had it, and I’m going to put my hand up and admit that I have it too. When I am focused on a task I can easily become oblivious to the world and sit at my desk for many hours at a time without moving. I will not even hear the phone on my desk ring. And I have recently learned the hard way that sitting hunched over a hot computer for hours is not good for the spine. My chiropractor has given me strict instructions to break the spell of hyperfocus every hour and have a good stretch. (Thank you Teresa!). I’ve been giving that advice to other people for years, but doctors are, of course, the worst patients. Now my computer sends me a reminder every hour. Fortunately there can be an upside to hyperfocus, which I shall explain in a moment.

So what is hyperfocus? Interestingly, it is can be a feature of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). People with the disorder may not just exhibit distractibility, but may also have a tendency to focus very intently on things that interest them. The ability of a child to sit for hours playing complex video games does not at all rule out the diagnosis of ADD. I have known many people whose hyperfocus lead them to spend countless hours playing games or surfing the Internet, to the detriment of their relationships.

The real problem in ADD is not a short attention span; it is a poorly regulated attention system. It is thought that attentional problems are related to low levels of dopamine in key regions of the frontal systems of the brain, which is why people with ADD tend to be drawn to activities that provide instant feedback, and may also be part of the explanation for the disastrously high rates of substance abuse and impulsivity in untreated patients. Particularly in young people with ADD, they tend constantly to seek out things that are exciting and entertaining rather than schoolwork and chores.

So what to do about hyperfocus? I shall mention in a moment why, in its place, it can be helpful. But when it is interfering with things that have to get done, or causing other problems, here are some tips:

1. Use you computer’s alarm functions: I use a Macintosh, so I’ve been able to set up some fun distractions that come along once an hour.

2. Alarm watches: set the sound and/or vibration that it will be able to break through your hyperfocus. Experiment to find the decibels needed.

3. You can send yourself regular cell phone messages via email.

4. Most modern cell phones have good alarm functions that you can set to help yourself.

5. Kitchen timers are also very helpful.

Though there’s not a shred of scientific evidence to support it, I have also had some successes with the Bach Flower Essence, Chestnut Bud, in reducing unwanted hyperfocus.

I firmly believe that most problems contain their solution. Therefore I try not to fight hyperfocus, but to harness it. For a child with hyperfocus, learning that is active and physical is far more likely to be successful than book learning. Many entrepreneurs have hyperfocus, because they like working intensely on projects that give them a quick and enjoyable payoff. They often find it difficult to work in corporate America, if they have to work at someone else’s speed and at times laid down by another person.

“Successful minds work like a gimlet, to a single point.” –Christian Nestell Bovée (American Lawyer and Writer, 1820-1904)

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Partial Attention

“To do two things at once – is to do neither.” — Publilius Syrus (Syrian-born Latin Writer, 1st Century B.C.E.)

Just yesterday I was counseling a successful young businesswoman who was telling me that she was planning to buy a Blackberry to add to her cell phone, laptop, PDA and pager. I strongly advised her not to buy one. Not because I have anything against Blackberries: they are wonderful pieces of equipment, and some people cannot do their jobs without them. My suggestion was based on something else entirely: Overload. Apart from being in business, she is also a mother of a young teething child and the last thing that she needs is yet another device to occupy her attention.

So I was delighted by the remarkable coincidence that this week’s Newsweek magazine is carrying an important article by Steven Levy, reporting on the recent emerging Technology Conference in San Diego that took "The Attention Economy" as its theme. He described an issue that has been worrying me for several years and which I shall be addressing when I am interviewed for in a couple of weeks time. A former Apple and Microsoft executive named Linda Stone described the epidemic of continuous partial attention.

We have all been multitasking since before our ancestors came down from the trees, but she discussed the way in which people’s attention is now constantly being distracted by a host of new inputs: email, text messaging, instant messaging and a hundred other things. And think of those news broadcasts that since 2001 have regularly had more than one item at a time on the screen. Many people have learned to give only partial attention to the task before them. The downside of this is that the appearance of competent multitasking (“Look mom, I can do ten things at once!”) is an illusion. If you are only working on a project with 10% of your attention, it is going to take much longer to get it done, and errors are far more likely to occur. What if needed is intense focus on one thing at a time.

In a speech, Linda Stone said that I prominent cause of continuous partial attention is "a desire to live as a node on the network." Some people can manage several inputs very well indeed. I often have more than one screen of input open at once, and Bill Gates is able to monitor four active screens at once. But when I’m really concentrating on producing high quality material for you, gentle reader, I turn off all the inputs until I am finished. In fact, checking my email is a reward for having finished the job at hand. While there are many advantages to being in perpetual contact, the balance has tipped more toward distraction, and, as Linda Stone put it, “a sense of constant crisis.”

I am also reminded of the phenomenon of “Flow” made popular by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We feel that we are in a state of flow state when we are engaged in self-determined, goal-related, meaningful actions that are moving in the direction that we desire. Having our attention and energy pulled away from the flow is likely to interfere without ability not just to be productive, but also to enjoy life. There is, of course nothing wrong at all with being in continuous contact and communication with others people. But in order to be productive or to enjoy the moment, at some point you need to actually stop the conversation and focus on what you are doing.

Professor David Meyer from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is a research psychologist who has demonstrated that multitasking, far from increasing our productivity, actually makes us less productive. Some data from Europe has influenced lawmakers, after research indicated that driving and talking on a cell phone is a particularly bad multitasking combination that has been shown to cause even more accidents than drunk drivimg.

Remember the old saying: “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

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