Cell phone use and attention

The September issue of the International Journal of Neuroscience, 2007 published an article entitled, Frequent Mobile Phone Use “Might” Improve Mental Concentration.

The study was performed by researchers from Brainclinics Diagnostics and the Radboud University department of Biological Psychology both from Nijmegen (the Netherlands), the Institute of Psychiatry (London) and the Brain Resource Company (Sydney, Australia).

The researchers based their findings on data from 300 people. This group was segmented into 100 ‘frequent mobile phone users,’ 100 ‘non-mobile phone users,’ and a control group of 100 people. Differences in brain activity on tests of attention, memory, and executive function were measured using QEEG or quantitative EEG. QEEG is more art than science and is a relatively nascent technology.

Curiously, the researchers concluded that frequent mobile phone users demonstrated slowed brain function, but the users also showed better focused attention. The researchers attribute better focused attention as a ‘learning effect’ related to cell phone users filtering out distractions when making phone calls in distractive surroundings.

Wisely, the researchers note that these data are preliminary and need to be replicated. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine whether the healthy or unhealthy.

“The frequent mobile phone user group used their mobile phone – at the time of data collection – only 2.4 years on average which can currently be considered as a short time. Therefore, it is to be expected that the observed effects in this study can be more severe with prolonged mobile phone use” according to Martijn Arns, co-author of the study.

Multitasking vs Task Switching Research

I recently debated multitasking to task switching. Multitasking denotes attention to a variety of extraneous and internal stimuli. All research that I can find concludes that the human mind performs much less efficiently under multitasking environments–this includes the following article from Johns Hopkins University and published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Task switching denotes shifting full attention from one activity to the next. It seems to parallel our current understanding of brain function in a high stimuli environment.

Multitasking: You can’t pay full attention to both sights and sounds Lab findings suggest reason cell phones and driving don’t mix The reason talking on a cell phone makes drivers less safe may be that the brain can’t simultaneously give full attention to both the visual task of driving and the auditory task of listening, a study by a Johns Hopkins University psychologist suggests. The study, published in a recent issue of “The Journal of Neuroscience,” reinforces earlier behavioral research on the danger of mixing mobile phones and motoring.

“Our research helps explain why talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance, even when the driver is using a hands-free device,” said Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the university’s Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

“The reason?” he said. “Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain. The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited – a zero-sum game. When attention is deployed to one modality – say, in this case, talking on a cell phone – it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality – in this case, the visual task of driving.”

Yantis’s chief collaborator on this research project was Sarah Shomstein, who was a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins. Shomstein is now a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Though the results of Yantis’ research can be applied to the real world problem of drivers and their cell phones, that was not directly what the professor and his team studied. Instead, healthy young adults ages 19 to 35 were brought into a neuroimaging lab and asked to view a computer display while listening to voices over headphones. They watched a rapidly changing display of multiple letters and digits, while listening to three voices speaking letters and digits at the same time. The purpose was to simulate the cluttered visual and auditory input people deal with every day.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Yantis and his team recorded brain activity during each of these tasks. They found that when the subjects directed their attention to visual tasks, the auditory parts of their brain recorded decreased activity, and vice versa.

Yantis’ team also examined the parts of the brain that control shifts of attention. They discovered that when a person was instructed to move his attention from vision to hearing, for instance, the brain’s parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex produced a burst of activity that the researchers interpreted as a signal to initiate the shift of attention. This surprised them, because it has previously been thought that those parts of the brain were involved only in visual functions.

“Ultimately, we want to understand the connection between voluntary acts of the will (for instance, a choice to shift attention from vision to hearing), changes in brain activity (reflecting both the initiation of cognitive control and the effects of that control), and resultant changes in the performance of a task, such as driving,” Yantis said. “By advancing our understanding of the connection between mind, brain and behavior, this research may help in the design of complex devices – such as airliner cockpits – and may help in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders such as ADHD or schizophrenia.”

Good Morning America Features Play Attention

Play Attention was featured on the ABC News Show – Good Morning America on June 20,2005.

Some parents are trying to get their kids to refocus by using a video game.

Former teacher Peter Freer invented a concentration game called “Play Attention,” which borrows from technology and exercises developed by NASA to sharpen pilots’ focus.

To play the game, a person will put on a helmet with sensors attached to it. The goal is to use your powers of concentration to make a virtual alien rise to the top of the screen. If you get distracted, the alien will fall down the screen.

Freer says that after logging 40 to 60 hours playing the game over several weeks, children and adults showed permanent improvement in their attention spans.

“The more [you] do this, the better you’ll be able to do it at will,” Freer says.

Are We a Nation of ‘Psuedo-ADD’ Sufferers?

Are We a Nation of ‘Psuedo-ADD’ Sufferers?

Society’s Breakneck Pace Encourages Lack of Focus, Concentration, Some Say

Americans often have hundreds of television channels to choose from, and high-speed Internet access, e-mail and personal digital assistants keeping them connected – but if you are so “connected” that you’re beginning to feel rather disconnected, you may not be alone, some mental health experts say.

We are becoming a nation of attention deficit disorder sufferers, says Dr. John Ratey, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Delivered from Distraction.”

“We value not spending much time thinking about one thing,” Ratey says. “These are hallmark symptoms of people with what we call pseudo-ADD.”

A Nation of Multi-Taskers

Hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents have received a clinical ADD diagnosis for an inability to focus and concentrate in school. But what about the non-medical problem of “cultural” ADD?

Being able to multi-task effectively is a prized quality in our society. Take Eileen O’Connor, a former ABC News producer and now a wife, mother of five, law student and non-profit executive. She feels like being able to multi-task is the only way to cram all she needs to do into her hectic days.

“I would go to class, listen to the lecture and on one [computer] screen be taking notes,” O’Connor says. “And on another screen, I was on my e-mail, actually e-mailing [my kids] or people in the office.”

But Ratey argues that multi-tasking is not as efficient as we might think.

“The brain is not riveted, it’s not focused,” he says. “You’re seeing a lot more noise in the brain. You’re using more of your brain to try and pay attention.”

One recent study showed that workers don’t spend more than three minutes on any given task, and they’re usually interrupted every two minutes.

Other research said it takes a person 50 percent longer to complete two tasks done simultaneously than if they were done separately.

In other words, asking your brain to keep hitting pause and play doesn’t save time.

Kids in Overdrive

Even busy, supercharged moms like O’Connor worry about kids growing up in overdrive, trying to do a million things at once – even homework.

Jim Steyer is the chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that encourages family-friendly entertainment. He says Americans are raising a generation of media-saturated kids.

In fact, the latest figures show kids spend 8½ hours a day using different kinds of media – from television to computers to video games.

“They’re spending too many hours in front of the screen – either a TV screen or a computer screen – and it does contribute in some ways to attention deficit disorder,” Steyer said.

Video Game Helps Concentration

Some parents are trying to get their kids to refocus by using a video game.

Former teacher Peter Freer invented a concentration game called “Play Attention,” which borrows from technology and exercises developed by NASA to sharpen pilots’ focus.

To play the game, a person will put on a helmet with sensors attached to it. The goal is to use your powers of concentration to make a virtual alien rise to the top of the screen. If you get distracted, the alien will fall down the screen.

Freer says that after logging 40 to 60 hours playing the game over several weeks, children and adults showed permanent improvement in their attention spans.

“The more [you] do this, the better you’ll be able to do it at will,” Freer says.

But do you really need a video game to improve concentration? O’Connor and her family are determined to slow down a bit and enjoy the simpler things.

“A typical day is nuts,” O’Connor said. “But then there are times when we say, ‘Whoa, we just gotta stop here.’ We do stop with a family dinner, and I think that sort of brings us back to reality.”

Copyright © 2005 ABC News Internet Ventures

Children and Cognitive Overload

As Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we are in an age where we are inundated with information. Postman states that the average Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a person in the 1700s got in a lifetime.

Now, The Seattle times reports We’re shooting through technological rapids that have opened doors and changed the dynamic of work, how we communicate and live, and sometimes even think. All these tools have made our lives easier in many ways. But they’re also stirring deep unease. Some are concerned that the need for speed is shrinking our attention spans, prompting our search for answers to take the mile-wide-but-inch-deep route and settling us into a rhythm of constant interruption in which deadlines are relentless and tasks are never quite finished.

Scientists call this phenomenon “cognitive overload,” and say it encompasses the modern-day angst of stress, multitasking, distraction and data flurries.

In fact, multitasking — a computing term that involves doing, or trying to do, more than one thing at once — has cemented itself into our daily lives and is intensely studied. Research has shown it to be consistently counterproductive, often foolish, unhealthy in the long run, and in the case of gabbing on the cell phone while driving, relatively dangerous. Yet it is also expected, encouraged and basically essential. This is such a topic of study that it has sprouted a number of terms, from “online compulsive disorder” to “data smog.” Two Harvard professors see evidence of what they call “pseudo-attention deficit disorder” — shorter attention spans influenced by technology and the constant waves of information washing over us. When the brain gets excited over some rapid data and is stimulated, it releases a “dopamine squirt,” they say.

WE ARE WHAT WE THINK “We have so many options, reward centers that we never had before,” says John Ratey, who teaches at Harvard and is a psychiatrist specializing in attention deficit disorder. “I think that’s why we’re seeing more of this. There are more demands on our attention and less training for us to stop and take it all in. We seem to be amazing ourselves to death.”

This is of particular interest when it comes to children who have grown up in the fast lane where Web pages that take more than five seconds to load are considered lame. Is the speed and ease compromising their attention spans? Their perspective? Their humanity? Even their work ethic? Or are we just threatened that they will lap us old fogies?

Little is understood about the Information Age’s effect on this generation, but it is a burgeoning area of research. Ratey wonders if kids would read “The Red Badge of Courage” to complete their homework or simply comb the Internet for essays explaining it all for them.

Children Today: Multi-tasking or Multi-distracted?

As I’ve qualitatively interviewed hundreds of people that I meet 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.

Multitasking, ADD and the Workplace

real life: Dana Knight
Attention, please. Distracted workers often fail to produce

April 8, 2005

I was just about to get down to the nitty-gritty of writing when an evil little temporary tattoo I received in the mail peeked from beneath my towering stack of files.

Wonder what that would look like on my ankle?

I rushed to the restroom. One damp cloth and 30-second rub later, the funky, mustard-colored sun tattoo looked pretty darned good.

The work I was trying to do at my desk? Not so good.

But I’m back. Settled down in my chair with the Diet Pepsi I picked up on the way back from the tattoo task and ready to admit: ADD is a problem for me.

ADD as in Always Doubly Distracted at work. With e-mails, phone calls, life. With the boss, the touch-ups to makeup, the alluring infohole called the Internet, sometimes I feel like staying focused on one task is impossible.

My American co-workers are with me on this one and more distracted than ever, according to a recent Harvard University study.

The average employee’s attention span is, at most, 12 minutes. The average worker switches to a different task every three minutes and gets interrupted every two minutes, says Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies the effects of multitasking on workers. She reported her findings to Ergonomics Today.

With technology overload (experts estimate workers respond to at least 200 e-mails daily) and the multitasking culture, employees’ brains are about to fizzle out.

“We’re inundated with information, and we don’t really know what to do with it all or how to process it,” says Peter Freer, founder and chief executive officer of Play Attention, a funky new piece of technology that can retrain a brain to focus (I’ll explain later). “It comes in cell phones, PDAs, faxes, e-mails, regular phones, radio and TV. Many of us have attention problems.”

I just noticed a book on my desk called “Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results.” It says to always walk on stage as if you belong there and to be unpredictable. Interesting. Now what was I doing? Oh yeah.

Overworked employees are triply distracted and unproductive, says Paul Riley, a psychiatrist with St. Vincent Stress Center.

“You are not focused,” says Riley. “You make a lot of mistakes.”

It’s a problem, a big one for employers, who lose valuable hours in productivity and attention to detail, as well as other distraction downfalls.

Experts say distracted workers have more unscheduled absences and higher medical expenses.

Often, the mere mention of a sick co-worker can cause a distracted worker to . . .

OK, I’ll admit it. I need new return address labels, and I’m sick of the same old ones. So I just Googled it. There were 2.57 million hits.

And the bosses wonder why work isn’t getting done.

An estimated 8 million adult Americans struggle with the inattention disorders like attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School. But, they say, only 20 percent realize it.

It shouldn’t take your boss long to figure it out.

“It is very difficult for a person with an attention problem to survive in the workplace without being discovered,” says Freer. “They’ll start 20 or 30 projects and finish none of them.”

Freer’s technology, called Play Attention, has been a big hit among major corporations that realize the problems with unfocused workers.

The way it works is simple. The employee wears a helmet lined with sensors that monitor brain activity. The software is popped into the computer and the worker is instructed to focus on the computer screen and the tasks at hand.

For example, if a fax shows up on the computer screen, the user is to move it using only brainpower to the in box. Same for a piece of junk mail that shows up; the user should concentrate until the mail lands in the trash can.

The more the user practices, the more the brain improves and gets used to being focused.

Nikko Smith just got booted off “American Idol.” Bummer.

I haven’t used the Play Attention yet. Can you tell?