Donate Today! Help us help others.

Lynch Coaching


Monday, June 23, 2014

Think you multitask well..Think again


The Brain Is Wired to Focus on Just One Thing; Which Tasks Are Easier to Combine

Melinda Beck on Lunch Break looks at the "cocktail party effect," in which people are able to focus on one conversation while being aware of conversations going on around them. Researchers say we can train our brains to maximize this kind of awareness.

You're at a party. Music is playing. Glasses are clinking. Dozens of conversations are driving up the decibel level. Yet amid all those distractions, you can zero in on the one conversation you want to hear.
This ability to hyper-focus on one stream of sound amid a cacophony of others is what researchers call the "cocktail-party effect." Now, scientists at the University of California in San Francisco have pinpointed where that sound-editing process occurs in the brain—in the auditory cortex just behind the ear, not in areas of higher thought. The auditory cortex boosts some sounds and turns down others so that when the signal reaches the higher brain, "it's as if only one person was speaking alone," says principle investigator Edward Chang.

These findings, published in the journal Nature last week, underscore why people aren't very good at multitasking—our brains are wired for "selective attention" and can focus on only one thing at a time. That innate ability has helped humans survive in a world buzzing with visual and auditory stimulation. But we keep trying to push the limits with multitasking, sometimes with tragic consequences. Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren't.

Many of those accidents are due to "inattentional blindness," in which people can, in effect, turn a blind eye to things they aren't focusing on. Images land on our retinas and are either boosted or played down in the visual cortex before being passed to the brain, just as the auditory cortex filters sounds, as shown in the Nature study last week. "It's a push-pull relationship—the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others," says Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

That people can be completely oblivious to things in their field of vision was demonstrated famously in the "Invisible Gorilla experiment" devised at Harvard in the 1990s. Observers are shown a short video of youths tossing a basketball and asked to count how often the ball is passed by those wearing white. Afterward, the observers are asked several questions, including, "Did you see the gorilla?" Typically, about half the observers failed to notice that someone in a gorilla suit walked through the scene.

They're usually flabbergasted because they're certain they would have noticed something like that.
"We largely see what we expect to see," says Daniel Simons, one of the study's creators and now a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. As he notes in his subsequent book, "The Invisible Gorilla" (co-authored with Christopher Chabris), the more attention a task demands, the less attention we can pay to other things in our field of vision. That's why pilots sometimes fail to notice obstacles on runways and radiologists may overlook anomalies on X-rays, especially in areas they aren't scrutinizing.

And it isn't just that sights and sounds compete for the brain's attention. All the sensory inputs vie to become the mind's top priority.

That's the real danger of distracted driving, experts say. "You regularly hear people say as long as your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road, you're fine. But that's not true," Mr. Simons says.


The percentage of people who can multitask efficiently is fewer than three in one hundred, actually lower than 2.5% . Many more people only think they can.

Studies over the past decade at the University of Utah show that drivers talking on hands-free cellphones are just as impaired as those on hands-held phones because it is the conversation, not the device, that is draining their attention. Those talking on any kind of cellphone react more slowly and miss more traffic signals than other motorists.

"Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cellphone, you are not as likely to see it," says David Strayer, a psychology professor and lead researcher. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's not that critical, but that 1% could be the time a child runs into the street," he adds.
Dr. Strayer's studies have also found that talking on a cellphone is far more distracting than conversing with a passenger—since a passenger can see the same traffic hazards and doesn't expect a steady stream of conversation as someone on a cellphone does. Listening to the radio, to music or to a book on tape also isn't as distracting, because it doesn't require the same level of interaction as a conversation. But Mr. Simons notes that even drivers may miss some details of a book on tape if their attention is focused on merging or other complex driving tasks.

Some people can train themselves to pay extra attention to things that are important—like police officers learn to scan crowds for faces and conductors can listen for individual instruments within the orchestra as a whole.

[HEALTHCOLjp] Getty Images
Multitasking may cause cognitive depletion, while 'unplugging' has restorative properties, based on early research.

And the Utah researchers have identified a rare group of "super-taskers"—as estimated 2.5% of the population—who seem able to attend to more than one thing with ease.

Many more people think they can effectively multitask, but they are really shifting their attention rapidly between two things and not getting the full effect of either, experts say.

Indeed, some college professors have barred students from bringing laptop computers to their classrooms, even ostensibly to take notes. Dr. Beck says she was surprised to find that some of her students were on Facebook during her lectures—even though the course was about selective attention.
Still, she doesn't plan to crack down. "I just explained that doing Facebook in class means you will not learn as much, which will have consequences on the exam," she says.

Clearly, it is easier to combine some tasks than others. "Not all distractions are the same," says Dr. Strayer. Things like knitting, cleaning and working out can be done automatically while the mind is engaged elsewhere. But doing homework and texting simultaneously isn't possible. (Sorry, kids).
Even conversing and watching TV is difficult. "Just try conversing with your wife while watching football. It's impossible," jokes Mr. Simons.
PAY ATTENTION | How to stay in the zone
Recognize your limitations. The brain can only fully attend to one thing at a time.

Make your senses work together. If you're trying to listen to someone in a noisy room, look directly at the speaker.

Focus on what's important. Many professions—from pilots to police officers—depend on keen powers of observation. Training and practice help. But experts say things like chess and videogames likely won't expand your overall attention skills.

Allocate blocks of time to specific tasks. Sometimes a deadline can force people to focus.

Avoid distracted driving. Don't talk on a cellphone, text or give voice commands while at the wheel.

Write to Melinda Beck at


A Carlos Com 101-4049 said...

What puzzles me is that they needed to study this. I slip into la-la land quite often while working, it has it's ups and downs. The positive aspects are that I can focus on what's important and leave the rest on the backburner, the negative aspects are that I have missed a fire alarm and that apparently everyone thinks it's funny to come up and scare me. Yes, I'm that jumpy.

Anonymous said...

I found this post interesting. Yes, it is basically common sense, but it's nice to know that you are not the only one. In my current job- I am required to multi task. Being a food server can be one of the most mentally stressful jobs around! Not only must you maintain some degree of focus on every table (this could mean up to 9 tables with 2-4 people per table) at a time, but you must remain aware of the food coming out and the people who would like to pay. I do pretty well at my job, but this post made me wonder if I am really in that 2.5% or if my body has just become accustomed to the routine. In all honesty, sometimes I am not sure if I can do it or not- I just go with flow and hope for the best.. That being said, it is very stressful for me to multi task.. Therefore, I suppose it has become more of a learned multi task (trial and error)

Jason Mejia COM 101

Katrin Clyde said...

Multi tasking can be good and bad depending on the situation if you have children at times it's necessary to multi task but, driving and multi tasking probably not the best idea. I totally agree with the article that says only 2.5 people can multi task effectively if you try to do everything at once you'll probably look like a chicken with it's head cut of and cause you way to much stress

Anonymous said...

We are actually covering this in another class. Selective attention, and it's becoming and epidemic. I looked at both videos from the invisible gorilla done by Simons and Chabris,1999. I failed on both of them couldn't belive I would miss so many detail's. Also, an article done by Joseph Devine states a recent study has shown texting while driving is actually more dangerous than driving drunk.

MN COM 101

Anonymous said...

This is pretty obvious. Obviously, when you are paying attention to more than one thing at a time, you're "dividing your attention". The answer as to why multitasking is less efficient is even in our language.
That teacher that simply just let the students continue along was correct. I think college students who want to go on Facebook and waste their time in a class that they're paying hundreds of dollars for should be allowed to fail if their priorities aren't at the college level.
Other than that, I found the focusing tips to be obvious, but at the same time, a nice reminder of what I should be doing.

-Danielle Nunez

Anonymous said...

i consider myself a multi tasker because of the fact that im a mom. i do multiple things at once, but after reading this is makes more sense that in reality its not multitasking that im doing but simply jumping from one thing to another. With that i complete a little at a time of each thing instead of getting everything i need done. I also watched the video with the gorilla and i did see the gorilla but only after i lost count and lost focus of the task at hand. It was interesting to see the actual statistics of something that we all believe we do well.

-Megan Kazmar+

Anonymous said...

What I find funny is that almost all positions that I have held ask for the employee to have the ability to multitask. I find that when I perform multiple tasks (too many) at once, my work suffers greatly and I end up losing quality. I think the focus should shift to quality over quantity.

Jessica Pena