Archive | February, 2012

Distraction and Multitasking Good for Your Brain?

23 Feb

So….  let’s change the questions.   How do we adapt to our complicated world filled with so many messages fighting for our attention?   How do we sort through all those “distractions”, decide what is important, and find a way to put them all together without missing things we need to live well?

fMRI Brain Imaging

fMRI — Brain imaging

One key is letting go and allowing our brains to do what they do best – put things in categories, process, create, and act.    All this talk about multi-tasking being bad for performance is task oriented, not brain oriented!   Our brains crave activity and are continually problem solving.

There is so much left to study but the bottom line just might be that singular focus and attention to one task at a time could be over-rated in today’s information heavy world.   Maybe the best way to function is on multiple channels in the context of everyday life.

A group of researchers studying brain imaging found something really interesting… completely by accident.  They were testing how fMRIs (images of the electrical and chemical activity in the brain) look during specific kinds of tasks – what areas of the brain light up, what activity slows down, and other related things.   Yes, they found variations in the images when subjects were performing a variety of tasks.   However, they also found increased brain activity in between tasks – when participants were doing nothing.   This spurred more imaging research focused on participants who were not doing anything.   So far, that growing body of knowledge seems to suggest two things:  1) increases in overall activity and 2) increases in coordinated activity in more parts of the brain are apparent when the participants said they were “not thinking about anything” than when they were “doing something”.     Does that mean our brains function better when our mind wanders?

There is a great video on Mindwandering, a TEDx talk by researcher Malia Mason, that gives a more detailed (about 9 minutes)  description of why it is important to think about attention differently – attention that is fluid – attention that moves, shifts, and adapts.

Take your world and tasks in context and let your brain do what it does best.   At the risk of shameless self-promotion, Find the Difference puzzles at www.craniumcrunches.com help you see the details of life, all in context, while you solve a problem.   Practice what you need:  problem solve in context.

Brain Health, Divided Attention, & the Ongoing Debate Over Multitasking

5 Feb

At the end of 2011, the media was buzzing about the harmful effects of multitasking and the evils of divided attention.   True, according to a study done at Stanford, when we do multiple things at once, we don’t filter and sort information as rapidly and our ability to focus on one selected detail is diminished.

Read this book! Worth every minute! http://www.cathydavidson.com/

Great…. There are rare moments in my life when I have one task that I need to complete in isolation.  Taking things one at a time is not always an option.   Just when I decided that I was simply not going to perform at my best, most of the time, I read a book by Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It.   This much wiser- than-I woman took a different approach to Stanford’s findings.  Here are two lines from her book (trying my best to keep them in context):

  • I’m suggesting that the most important finding from this test is not that multitaskers are paying attention worse, but they are paying attention differently!
  • In our global, diverse, interactive world, where everything seems to have another side, continuous, partial attention may not only be a condition of life but a useful tool for navigating a complex world.   From:  Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson.

Insert huge sigh of relief here.   What Dr. Davidson, Duke University, proposes and what is so freeing, is that we need to look at how our brains function from within our own busy, complicated, multi-layered lives.   However, if we merely change the context and change the setting we don’t change the results.   So, maybe change the question…?

 Herein lies the other side of the multitasker argument .  A group of computer science researchers that also work at Duke University, seem to understand that we, like computers, must multitask to, at the very least, understand and integrate what is going on around us.   They get it and are now looking at this proposal:   maybe “chronic multitaskers” are taking in bits and pieces of everything and sharing all that information among tasks – finding relationships between pieces of information and distributing what is needed to complete all tasks at hand, not one single task.  I am paraphrasing (hopefully not taking too many liberties with their findings) but they seem to propose that brains, like computers, share expertise across tasks, learning what is important, useful and relevant by testing multiple sources (Duke Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering).  If artificial intelligence can be programmed to learn from what is happening now and use that info to solve problems and develop strategies for future use, why can’t we program our brains to do the same?

Change the context; change the setting; and change the question:   what can we do to better function in our multifaceted, multilayered, demanding world?


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