Why We Tune Out and What to Do About It

Tom Barrett
4 min readSep 23, 2022

Explore what happens to us when we are distracted, and how this impacts our attention, listening and productivity.

Cognitive load theory

First proposed by John Sweller in 1988, cognitive load theory posits that the human brain has a limited capacity for processing information in our working memory.

“In order to truly listen, we must first learn to quiet our minds.”

Shakti Gawain.

Our cognitive load increases when learning something new or taking in complex information. Our working memory works hard to process all the incoming data. High cognitive load can overwhelm us, and our brains may start to shut down or tune out.

High cognitive load can lead to difficulty with comprehension and, ultimately, to distraction. As important as this is for instructional design, let’s bring this back to our throughline about listening.

It is harder to listen and remain present when we feel cognitively overloaded. If we try to process too much information at once, we may start to tune out or get distracted.

Why do we get distracted?

When we get distracted, our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning skills like attention and focus, takes a backseat to the more primitive part of our brain, the limbic system.

When it perceives a threat, it sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex to divert our attention away from what we’re doing so that we can deal with the threat.

Novelty is also a powerful trigger for the limbic system. In our constantly connected world, we are bombarded with new information and notifications that can quickly pull us away from what we’re supposed to be focused on.

“If we really want to get focused, if we really want to more skillfully manage the distractions of digital life, the path has to include developing a new habit of more effectively managing our most precious resource: our attention.”


Research into attention, distraction and focus from 2010 reveals that our brain has a default mode that we barely notice.

Tom Barrett

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