In my interviews with thousands of people that I’ve met at conferences and seminars, I’ve found one underlying current especially relevant to the pace of life right now: most of us feel overwhelmed. We are exposed to information from cell phones, faxes, email, TV, radio, pagers, PDAs, print media, computers, the Internet, etc. This constant bombardment results in a feeling of information overload. It’s probably the brain’s natural response to being inundated by information non-related to its survival as most of the information transmitted to us is fairly useless; it’s throw-away, disposable information. Most people I’ve interviewed say that they cannot even recall what they received in their email or heard on the news the previous week. Throw away, disposable information.
According to USA Today in an article entitled, “So much media, so little attention span“, children that are exposed to 8½ hours of TV, video games, computers and other media a day — often at once — may be losing the ability to concentrate. The article questions, “Are their developing brains becoming hard-wired to “multi-task lite” rather than learn the focused critical thinking needed for a democracy?
These troubling questions are raised by a Kaiser Family Foundation media study this month, says educational psychologist David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a Minneapolis non-profit. Even more troubling is the answer: We don’t know, Walsh and other experts in the field say.”
As I noted previously, adults feel inundated by information. Children respond differently. School psychologists and teachers typically report that children have a more difficult time attending now than every before. Children have a more difficult time staying still and listening if the presentation is not highly entertaining.
“The problem intensifies after third grade, when harder course work requires children to concentrate, adds Susan Ratteree, who supervises other public-school psychologists in suburban New Orleans. Diagnoses of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) “have gone through the roof,” she says. Though the disorder is more recognized these days, children seem to be different too, “and many teachers think the fast-paced media is having an effect.”
Children are more attuned to distractions around them. “They attend to everything — the air vents creaking, someone talking. They bounce from task to task. Teachers here say kids have more trouble getting organized, and their attention spans are not as good as they used to be,” says school psychologist Tamara Waters-Wheeler of the Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., public schools.
Studies with college students and adults show that the brain doesn’t work as well when it focuses on more than one task, Walsh says. If the challenge demands a lot of attention, mental performance is particularly poor. But he says there are no such studies on today’s kids as they multi-task with new media — instant- messaging, plugged into an iPod and doing homework at the same time.”
Science Daily from a study that appeared in the May 13, 1999, issue of the journal Nature(1), relates multitasking behaviors to the prefrontal cortex. “Investigators have mapped a region of the brain responsible for a certain kind of multitasking behavior, the uniquely human ability to perform several separate tasks consecutively while keeping the goals of each task in mind. Using imaging technology, scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) found that a specific type of multitasking behavior, called branching, can be mapped to a certain region of the brain that is especially well developed in humans compared to other primates.”
“The results of this study suggest that the anterior prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is most developed in humans, mediates the ability to depart temporarily from a main task in order to explore alternative tasks before returning to the main task at the departed point,” says Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., Chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the NINDS and a co-author of the study.
“We believe that this finding is important because branching processes appear to play a key role in human cognition,” says Etienne Koechlin, Ph.D., also of the NINDS Cognitive Neuroscience Section and a co-author of the study. “In everyday life, we often need to interrupt an ongoing task to respond to external events and we all experience how demanding it is to react to these events while keeping our minds on the original task.”
According to previous studies, humans may be the only species capable of performing branching, which involves keeping a goal in mind over time (working memory) while at the same time being able to change focus among tasks (attentional resource allocation). For example, people who are interrupted by a phone call while reading must be able to keep in mind the memory of what they were reading just before talking on the phone. Once the phone call is over, they should be able to return to the last sentence read and continue reading.”
Almost everyone shifts attention from one task to the next during a normal day. ADHD people shift attention more so than others, but have lesser ability to focus for very long on mundane or ordinary levels of stimulation.
It is important to put the following question: how much can we shift our attention before the tasks at hand do not get completed or begin to suffer in performance. Given our differences as a species, this will likely vary among the population and the complexity of the tasks.
Recent research issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society,>indicates that our brains weren’t made to multitask. A splendid example is driving while speaking on a cell phone. Some states have outlawed this behavior due to increased accident rates. It seems that we are far too distracted to focus on driving if we’re talking or dialing.
The researchers explain the multi-tasking/distracting phenomenon using two terms: “passive queuing” and “active monitoring.” Passive queuing implies that new incoming information has to line up for a chance at being processed – a queue – just as you wait in a queue in the doctor’s office. A focal point in the brain receives and processes the information one piece at a time.
Active monitoring (people who swear they can multi-task) suggests that the brain can process two things at once – it just needs to use a complicated mechanism to keep the two processes separate.
Researchers from MIT think that the brain works by passive queuing, the non-multi- tasking approach. “…in a study to be published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, [researchers] examined the brain activity involved in multitasking. They gave people two simple tasks. Task one was identifying shapes, and for some subjects, task two was identifying letters, for others it was identifying colors. The subjects were forced to switch from one task to the other in either one and a half seconds or one tenth of a second. When they had to switch faster, subjects would take as much as twice as long to respond than when switching more slowly.
Using MRI technology, Jiang, Saxe and Kanwisher examined subjects’ brain activity while performing these tasks. They observed no increase in the sort of activity that would be involved in keeping two thought processes separate when subjects had to switch faster. This suggests that there are no complicated mechanisms that allow people to perform two tasks at once. Instead, we have to perform the next task only after the last one is finished.”
It is logical to ask then, if we expose ourselves to enough high-input stimulation (media, computers, cell phones, etc.) will this rewire the brain to accommodate the input? The USA Today article suggests that some research on media-exposure “suggests that children’s brains might be changing so they can juggle and concentrate better than their elders.
Scores on intelligence tests have been steadily rising since the 1940s, says University of Utah neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein. The tests measure a child’s ability to shift and divide attention, but they also cover problem-solving and comprehension skills. “They’re smarter,” Goldstein says.
Another germane fact: In the Kaiser study, computer use and TV didn’t seem to affect grades, but more time playing video games and less time reading were linked to poorer grades. About half of kids have a video game player in their rooms; more than two-thirds have TV sets.
Violent video games and TV have been shown to encourage aggressive behavior, says Michael Rich, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. Also, the more TV watched, the more overweight a kid is likely to be, he says.”
Although no long-term research has been performed to verify brain changes, it is widely accepted that the brain changes due to the external environment (neuroplasticity). Therefore, it makes perfect sense that all initial indications point to the fact that we are changing as a species due to our technology.
Is our change for the better or worse? If the answer is related to driving and speaking on a cell phone, the answer is obviously worse. If it’s related increased IQ scores it’s for the better.
Still, the fact that children want to be entertained more now than ever before, the fact that they have a more difficult time sitting still and listening, the fact that they cannot pay attention to something as simple and beautiful as a flower because “it’s boring” is most disturbing. Proponents of the technology evolution/revolution propose that children can now learn faster and must have more stimulating input. It’s difficult to argue against that. However, there exists a fine line between entertainment and education. Our finest discoveries have come from carefully examining the nuances of relationships, cells, atoms, and the cosmos. I would maintain that our survival as a species depends on our ability to fathom the great subtleties of life. This is not discovered through high stimulation, but by a careful, quiet examination of the world around us.