Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Attention Span

Before you do anything, watch this video:

Did you watch it? If not, do it... right now (if you are reading this on Facebook then you might not see a video and should just go to this link) before reading further. It’s a fun test, but will be spoiled by the discussion below.



The phenomenon demonstrated by the video is called inattentional blindness (I have also seen attentional blindness and inattention blindness). It reflects the fact that we have a finite capacity to process information. We cannot attend to all the sensory information coming from our environment at the same time, let alone do that and attend to other cognitive tasks as well, like solving a math problem. So, moment to moment, we apply our finite capacity selectively to one or a few tasks. The more tasks we try to do simultaneously (multitasking) the fewer cognitive resources can be applied to each task, and performance suffers.

Most people cannot effectively multitask, even if they think they can. Only about 2.5% of people can genuinely multitask – perform two demanding cognitive tasks simultaneously without both suffering. For most people, multitasking comes at a price. We can divide our attention, but not without a decrease in performance. Many places now have laws reflecting this research – prohibiting talking and texting on cell phones while driving.

What the "famous" gorilla video demonstrates is that attention itself is a task that suffers from from multitasking. We can focus all of our attention on one thing, or spread our attention out to monitor our environment, or do a little of both. You have a budget of attention, and you can spend it as you please at any moment, but you cannot increase your budget.

What the gorilla video research (and other research) also shows is that everyone does not have the same budget. Some people have more attention to spread around. Neuroscientists are not content simply documenting the finite attention and cognitive budgets of our brains – they also want to figure out what specific brain functions determine our attentional budget.

That is the focus of new research by psychologists Janelle Seegmiller, Jason Watson, and David Strayer. They reproduced the gorilla video experiment, but also tested the hypothesis that the ability to see the gorilla is linked to working memory capacity.

Working memory is the immediate information that you can hold and manipulate. When you do a math problem in your head, you are using working memory. It is distinguished from long term memory which can be stored for years to be retrieved, but cannot be manipulated – unless it is recalled into working memory.

I find it interesting, whatever the underlying cause, that some people are significantly better at directing their attention than others. I wonder if this is an ability that is changing over time. At the risk of being a bit extreme I wonder if poor multitasking ability will be selected against because poor multi-taskers who try to talk on their phones while driving have a higher chance of being killed in a car accident?
I also wondered if the higher working memory and higher attentional flexibility in some subjects represents type of superior hard wiring, or does it mean that they have decreased capacity elsewhere? Are attentionally flexible people less able to think deeply without distraction? I can make either answer make sense, so I don’t think there is an obvious answer. And both answers may be correct.

So many questions, so many wonderings... obviously, this is less about the Distracted Driving references and more about how the mind works. In the end this new research is an interesting piece to a massively complex puzzle which is slowly starting to show a bit of a picture...

now, what was I saying?

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