What is Distractibility? - Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Lack of sleep or psychiatric disorders like ADHD can cause distractibility. Yet, distractibility is not always associated with a sleep deficit or disorder. Learn the definition and symptoms of distractibility in this lesson.

Definition of Distractibility

Thirteen-year-old Emma is having immense difficulty focusing on her classmate Neil's presentation. She is distracted by the colorful classroom bulletin board, thoughts about what she will do with her family over the holiday, and ideas about how she will win the town's annual cookie contest. Distractions such as these are typical for Emma, and she is often frustrated about her inability to focus. Emma suffers from distractibility.

Distractibility is a condition of being easily sidetracked from the primary purpose, unable to pay attention or stay on task. Attention that should be directed towards a person or task is diverted to another object, thought, feeling or event. Distractibility can occur in response to external and internal stimuli.

External stimuli are changes in the external environment that engage our senses (e.g., a new sight or smell) and impact our behavior (e.g., cause distractibility). Internal stimuli, on the other hand, are changes within our body (e.g., thoughts and feelings) that impact our behavior. A person who has high distractibility is often distracted by the slightest external or internal stimuli.

For example, Emma is so highly distractible that her attention is diverted from the teacher with outside stimuli, such as the colorful bulletin board, and internal stimuli, such as her thoughts and ideas about the holidays and cookie contest.

Symptoms of Distractibility

Have you ever procrastinated studying for a big exam so much that you had to pull an all-nighter? If so, you may have noticed that the lack of sleep made you highly distractible the next day. The brain's capacity for attention is highly affected by lack of sleep. Yet, people who have general distractibility are distracted even with a full-night's rest. Symptoms of distractibility include:

  • Quickly moving from one task to another, often not finishing the first
  • Flight of ideas or racing thoughts
  • Inability to sustain a focused conversation with another
  • Quickly moving from topic to topic in conversation
  • Academic underachievement due to not being able to follow lessons or not completing assignments
  • Disorganized
  • Tendency to procrastinate due to finding interest in something else
  • Seemingly random verbalizations
  • Trouble following through with ideas or goals

People with high distractibility can seem like their minds are somewhere else. They may be called space cadets, airheads or flighty. They can appear strange when they blurt out something random and off-subject during a conversation. Distractibility can be a sign of a disorder, but there is also a silver lining to this condition which will be discussed in the next section.

Distractibility: Evidence of a Disorder or Intelligence?

You may be thinking that distractibility sounds a lot like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit disorder, and this is because distractibility is one of the prominent characteristics of these two disorders.

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