March 25, 2007


Despite its amazingness, the brain cannot concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Does this mean you shouldn't multitask? Does it depend on how old you are? It does! But not the way you're guessing it does:
A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code.

The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.

“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on,” said Martin Westwell, deputy director of the institute.
Of course, some of us "older people" are over 39, possibly by quite a few years. I wonder how fast and fluid we are. At some point, we've got to slow down, and at some point, fluidity of the brain is dementia.

Concentration is a funny thing. I don't think you can test it with a single task and a single type of interruption. A younger person may be more easily distracted by an instant message because it has intense emotional associations -- new sexual adventures or emergency demands from bosses.

I know my ability to concentrate and my susceptibility to distractions have changed over time, but I can't sort out what is caused by age and what is caused by changing life circumstances. Am I unwilling to sit in a dark room for two hours and devote myself to watching a movie because I've aged, because blogging has rejiggered my attention span, or because I don't have the right movie buff companion?


Jennifer said...

FWIW, I think one of the main differences for the older people (gasp, I'm in that category now!!) is the training of childrearing. You haven't multitasked until you've balanced a checkbook while cooking a several part dinner for guests with laundry going all the while responding to two little voices calling "Mama!" "Oops." thud Crash! "Help!" "Noooooooooooooo!" "Watch this! Watch this!" "She hit me!" and so on.

Annie said...

I dunno about that, not having childreared. But, the main difference I notice with aging well beyond 39 (for Chrissake!) is one-track mindedness. Aged attention is like a tunnel through rock: you can only be in one at a time, and the others -- out of sight, out of mind. If I switch my attention from one subject to another, the first one is simply gone, and it may be a long time before it occurs to me to come back to it, if ever.

In that respect being 60 is a little like being stoned on marijuana.

babuilder said...

I'm very linear in my tasking and always have been. Didn't think about it much until all the talk about multitasking. I have always assumed it is why I gravitated to the construction industry where what you get accomplished is visible immediately. Coincidently, if everyone was being paid by the page, the invoice, the "whatever", they would find out real quick if they are any good at multitasking. I don't have to manage my subs cell phone usage when they are paid by the square foot.

TMink said...

Nice to see bejiggered used! My wonderful aunt used the word as an oath, "Well I'll be bejiggered."

And as far as being 60 being like being stoned, no wonder that 60 is the new 30.

I think that the research may be pointing out how visual stimuli distract differently than aural stimuli. Background music is a big help to me in my office work. With my ADD, it gives my brain something to be interested in while I do billing. When my wife works with me, we turn the music off as it is too distracting for her nomrmally attentive brain. Visual stiumuli is too damn distracting for both of us.


Ron said...

I think the thing with yourself and movies is more psychological and complex than mere attention span or even companion. You still seem to have some interest/attraction but somehow you're more critical of things that seem intrinsic to movies. (length, plots, the way scenes in movies all have some kind of meaning)
At this point, Suspecion ain't changin', it's you. Maybe then reflection on what about you is now different would be a more interesting path to go down rather than complaining about the length of a film. I am curious about what that would be.

Ann Althouse said...

Well, I did write "rejiggered." But "bejiggered" is funny!


I have an old post -- here -- about getting just the right music to read to. I'm in a café right now where the background music is perfect for reading, but where I can't trust them not to put on some rhythm-y "world" music that would completely distract me -- and not in a good way.

ron st.amant said...

I wonder if the difference isn't (and maybe what Ann is touching upon) so much 'multi-tasking' as it is prioritizing?

Jennifer has a point too.

As a relatively new parent (and a stay at home dad), I've learned more about my capacity to both multi-task and proritize. I think I did well enough before, but now there's a heightened imperative.

GPE said...

This topic fascinates me and has since High School. Related research goes back to the 1950's (see George A. Miller, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information) The Times article seems to focus on the notion of cognitive concentration, where as Miller speaks to the amount of information we can track while concentrating. While multitasking, that 7 ± 2 degrades.

It's dependent on the character of the information as well - visual, auditory, kinesthetic - and the preferred channel of the person doing the multitasking. Visual thinkers tend to multitask better, presumably because task data can be presented simultaneously. Auditory data is sequential. Conversational data, for example, evolves over minutes rather than the seconds it takes to process visual data.

I think multitasking can be a learned trait. But I also think it's overrated. A consequence of applying the computer metaphor to the human brain. Best line from the article:

In short, the answer appears to lie in managing the technology, instead of merely yielding to its incessant tug.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I've always gathered that multi-tasking has something to do with estrogen.

And of course, there's my uterine homing device, which is used every time my husband cannot find something he's hunting for.

SMGalbraith said...

the brain cannot concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

Hmm, wasn't the philosopher C.S. Peirce able to write with both hands simultaneously? E.g., he was capable of writing a math problem on a chalk board with his left hand while, at the same time, writing the solution the problem with his right hand?

Or that was just a parlor trick, so to speak?

Simon said...

Quite aside from age, as you'll see in the Pease book, there are also significant differences between men's and women's abilities to multitask.

HaloJonesFan said...

I don't think that there's anything to it beyond experience. Sure, biology might play a part in the intensity of the fight-or-flight response to sudden stress.

But it's really just a question of "oh, okay, I've been in this situation before" versus "hoooooly crap, what's gonna happen now?"

It's all about desensitization; and the longer you live, the more things there are to be desesitized to.

If someone wants to twist this into a post about autism, there's an excellent road right there to suggest that modern society is "desensitizing" children too early in their lives, and so they learn too early not to be excited by other people.

Maxine Weiss said...

Key phrases in this Althouse Post:

"new sexual adventures"


"movie buff companion"

Peace, Maxine

Daryl Herbert said...

Google has been eating my comments lately. So i will restate what I wrote but shorter:

Real-Time Strategy games force this kind of multitasking. They're often military-themed, where one commander has to lead his forces, scout the map, find and harvest resources, build a base, fend off enemy raids, attack the enemy, dampen their flow of resources, research new units/technologies/upgrades, repair or heal injured units, siege down enemy bases, often while dealing with land, air and sea units, cloaked units, teleporting units, etc.

With limited resources, the player must make difficult decisions (what balance of forces should the player build up, what sort of attack should the player make). With limited time, implementing these decisions (and responding to enemy action) is difficult.

The games are designed to stress the player and force him (yes, it's still usually a him, I don't know of any game company that makes an RTS marketed to females) to respond quickly.

They can be very frustrating, but as the player gets better at them, certain decisions get easier to make in limited time spans and it's easier to implement those decisions (give commands to individual units) in limited time spans.

I don't know if it has much value in the real world, unless you're going to work at some place resembling CTU (from 24).

Bruce Hayden said...

I agree with many of the previous comments.

I do believe that there is a sexual component here, that is accentuated by child rearing. I have watched mother/daughter interactions where the mother can't quite grasp that the daughter isn't multitasking like she can, but couldn't do as well before she was a mother. Indeed, for teenagers, the girls don't seem that much better at it than the boys (even though they are always distracted by sex).

My strength has always been concentration and the ability to devote everything to just one task. And that has helped quite a bit in my career, esp. when I was still doing software engineering.

But the counter to this is that I multitask very poorly. For one thing, my spool-up time is just too long. Which is why I could never do what the average mother does multitasking taking care the kids, while getting dinner ready, while doing the housework, etc.

So, if I have one or two clients screaming for my attention, I can operate just fine. But when you get four or more, all of a sudden, I seem to find my ability to stay focussed crashing. And I find that I then get much less done.

And my sometimes girlfriend knows this. We finally figured out why really didn't like listening to her music while I drove and talked to her. I would get very irritable, and for awhile we didn't know why. I can somewhat talk and drive at the same time. And I can listen to my own music then too (because it is mostly Golden Oldies that haven't changed in 35-45 years). But adding in her music stresses me because of the multitasking involved.

So, when she is bored, or mad at me, etc., she will sometimes just sneak another ball into the air, and then another one, until I am starting to stress, and not realizing yet why. So, I get even by seeing how little I can move things around at her house before she will notice them. Often, moving something on a table by 1/4 inch is enough for her to know that something is different, but not enough that it is obvious what it is.

I am thinking that I have mostly worked in situations where it was not necessary to build up the faster fuid intelligence. I would probably do better in law if I had entered the field at 25 instead of 40. Instead, I spent that time in a profession where multitasking was not a priority (yet, interestingly, my biggest strength was understanding multitasking and multiprocessing in computers and the operating systems that run them).

Pogo said...

I have trouble focusing on doing one thing at a time well.

As a result, I consider the rapid flipping of channels to watch, say, 3 or 4 shows, to be multi-tasking.

Ann Althouse said...

Wow, Maxine nailed it.