Summer 2012

Can We Split Our Attention?

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Against the Grain

Many maintain that our brains can simultaneously process and respond to several visual objects in parallel.

But, Dr. Nurit Gronau disagrees.

"What I actually found in my latest research is that when we are focused on one specific object, and we perform a certain task on it (for example, deciding whether it is an animate or inanimate object), there is relatively little processing or very low level processing occurring outside the focus of visual attention, even though the subject matter may be close to us (our written names, for example.) If I have two objects appearing on the screen then I am focusing on one, and I am pretty good at ignoring the other one."

Her results are backed up by ERP brain imaging studies and functional MRI brain imaging studies. "They both show," according to Dr. Gronau, "that when we process something that is inside our main focus of attention, in contrast to what is outside the focus of attention, we see differences in brain activity."

This is the physiological proof for what we intuitively know.

Multi-Tasking: Yes or No?

So, can we multi-task or can't we?

Multi-tasking is one of those terms that we form strong opinions about. Can we follow instructions from our GPS without getting into an accident? Can we draft cohesive emails while sitting in a brainstorming meeting? Can we follow a single conversation in a room where there are dozens of other conversations going on in tandem?

Whether or not we can multi-task is not a matter of opinion or belief, rather, it is a matter of how our brains process information, how we see the world around us, and what we are or are not paying attention to.

"No, I don't believe that we can talk on our cellphones and still pay full attention to the road. If we are engaged in a conversation, then we cannot be paying the same level of attention to our driving and therefore the latter will suffer," Dr. Gronau reports.

Studies have shown how faulty eyewitness identifications are. One study found that eyewitness misidentifications contributed to the wrongful conviction of 76 percent of the first 250 individuals whose cases were overturned using DNA evidence. Why is this so? "Because unless it is really relevant to you, you are not paying full attention to the scene before you. And, there is also what is known as the "weapon focus effect" – if you are the victim of a crime, you are focusing on the weapon or direct source of the threat, and not necessarily on the perpetrator."

In the end, there are pros and cons on both sides of the spectrum. We do know, of course, that if there is something salient, it does capture the attention of an individual, and if it doesn't capture the individual's attention, then there is a 'problem' with the individual.

The individual who is focused can provide exact details on the scene occurring before him. But, even if you are not completely focused, rest assured that there are advantages to having that trait – you are more alert to the outside world.

You can't really choose which way you want to be. It's part evolutionary and part environmental.

But, for Dr. Gronau there are certain situations in which you can choose what distractions you do want to allow in your life, and when. So, whether you are chatting on your mobile while crossing the street, examining your GPS map while driving, SMSing to your spouse during a crucial business meeting, or watching YouTube when your kids want to share something important with you, you need to know the following: you are distracted, and as such will probably not be paying full or commensurate attention to the other activity at hand.

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