The Fight of Our Lifetimes
Elders and Obama's Speech

Elder Brains and Multi-tasking

category_bug_journal2.gif If the number of emails from readers yesterday regarding the announcement of a new study about elder brains' “failure” at multitasking is an indicator, there is broad interest in it.

The result of the research is not that elders are more likely than young people to forget the original task when interrupted, but that they have more difficulty letting go of the distraction and are slower to regain focus on the first task.

This is not new information. Previous studies show similar results but this one, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (abstract only available without a fee), helps researchers understand better what happens neurologically during interruptions.

The report was widely covered in the press yesterday. The Los Angeles Times, based in that bastion of Botox and cosmetic surgery, gave it a more negative spin than others:

“Put simply, the ability to switch easily tasks (sic) fades with age...

“For now, getting older means losing functions like multi-tasking and processing speed, said [neuroscientist and co-author Adam] Gazzaley.

“'But your vocabulary stays constant, and wisdom improves. It's not entirely a gloomy picture,' Gazzaley said.”

In reality, it's not all that gloomy and other publications were more neutral. The study was conducted with about 40 participants half of whom were young (mean age 24.5) and the other half old (mean age 69.1).

I have no education in statistics, but I was flabbergasted, given the headlines and discussion that elders fail at multitasking (The New York Times characterized it as “significant”), how small the difference was between young and old. From U.S. News:

”At the end of the exercise, which was repeated several times, the subjects were instructed to try to match the image that had been shown first.

“Older adults were able to successfully refocus and get the right answer 96 percent of the time with no interruption and 88 percent of the time when they had to think about the second image...

“In younger adults, that ability to refocus ranged from 94 percent to 90 percent.”

So apparently the numbers show that elders are two percent better than young people at getting the correct answer without distraction and only two percent worse with distraction.

Am I nuts to think that two percent is a statistical wash? Well, as I said, I have no knowledge of statistics.

However, although I know that all my life I have sometimes found myself standing in the bedroom, for example, wondering why I went there, my sense is that it happens more frequently in my old age. And often enough to be frustrating, when I've gone to the grocery with only three things on my mental list, I return home with just two of them and no memory of the third until I need it later.

So I was interested in Gazzaley's unanswered question about how cultural differences between generations may affect multitasking failure (I'm not convinced that the old participants failed this test): what affect is there from the fact that elders' brains were shaped in an era with many fewer distractions than young people have today.

Many studies convincingly show that trying to do too many things at once results in a poor outcome of all the tasks. And no wonder. You don't need to be a scientist to understand the negative effect of constant interruptions we are subject to from multiple sources:

  • Reading online has become a horror with pages moving up and down, ads walking across the words, requests to take surveys, sudden music or commercial pitches from moving ads in the sidebars
  • Radio and TV commercials constantly interrupt any potential thought about the news story just reported or the plot of the movie
  • Monday, Amazon announced the coming of a cheaper Kindle with ads, so in the middle of Moby Dick, I presume, readers will suddenly be pulled out of the story with an advertisement for deoderant or Pringles
  • Some weeks ago at the drug store, while I was trying to sort out which of 200 shampoos to buy, someone started talking to me: “Hey there,” a woman's voice called. It was a small video screen with a TV-style commercial about some other product. These are motion activated and so common now, I can't walk down a store aisle without a barrage of screeching pitch men and women

That last item surely helps explain why I can't get home with everything on my list.

Undoubtedly, elder brains slow down, just as our bodies do, but I don't believe, particularly given only a two-point spread between elders and youth, that this study should be given as much attention as it is getting.

While writing this post, the phone rang. When the call was finished and I returned to the computer, it took a couple of minutes to regain my train of thought. This is not a surprise at any age and I'm not concerned about it.

What I am waiting for are some respectable studies about what all the distraction is doing to our – young and old – ability to concentrate. I don't believe it is benign.

It is a form of noise pollution run amok and it cannot possibly be good for us – nor for a culture. How can we solve today's complex social and political problems if no one can concentrate for more than five minutes at a time?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today: William Weatherstone: Canada Invades the U.S.A. - 1952


They didn’t publish their margin of error for those statistics. It’s likely to be around 2 percent, maybe up to 5, depending on the sample size, so realistically there was no difference between the age samples.

Fortunately, we here in Australia still have the ABC so our programs are uninterrupted by commercials.

Another reason for me not to bother with Kindle, but to continue visiting my local libraries.

I should have read the piece in the L.A. Times before I commented. The sample size was only 20. Ridiculous. The margin of error would be huge.

I feel as I've gotten older I've gotten more savvy about avoiding distractions. I gave up radio decades ago because of the chaos of commercials and disc jockeys. I watch TV on DVD. I use browser plug-ins to extract text from pages that look like race cars. I admit I have a hard time recalling words and names, but I use Google and Wikipedia to make up for that.

I do find it more difficult to do several things at once these days. But the good news is that, without young children under my feet at all hours, I no longer have to.

There were study results out yesterday about what electronic use does to kids. Surprisingly it sharpens their brains.

Me. I used to drive with the top down, radio on top volume, and brushing my teeth. Now days I just drive....even without the radio which I find too distracting.

We have a TV commercial here for,of all things, a radio station.

The commercial shows clips of different young people all extolling the wonderful music that is played on this rock and roll station.

"I have my radio at work tuned to 106 fm ALL day." says the young lady preparing my Electric bill.

"I couldn't get my work done without listening to 106fm."
I can see my Cable bill on his desk.

"They play my type of rock all day" declares the hottie
who is in charge of my Phone bill.

This would be OK except that they all think they are great Multi taskers and they ARE NOT.

Almost every bill that comes to me needs a correction and I spend an inordinate amount of time pushing 1 for English and 2 for Billing and listening to crap music while I waste my day fixing all the bills they have prepared while also listening to rock and roll.

They are not half as efficient as older workers who admit they cannot multi task and prepare my bills without listening to any distracting music or commercials.

... now where was I?

I think it's just that we were allowed to grow up and mature while learning to focus on particular things -- without distractions like Rock'nRoll radio stations, cell phones, twitter/tweet and all the other distractions young people deal with.

I'm 74, and my ability to focus and go deeply into what I'm working on is why I'm still a top-notch bookkeeper and much in demand. And, like Nancy, I have to deal with young scatter-brains daily, much to my dismay and disgust.

I sometimes wonder if my sense of being easily distracted comes from the fact that I'm a mental list maker -- and I am letting my mental lists get too long. So as I do something, or try to juggle a couple of things, I'm already whirring away behind the scenes on something else.

That's not exactly distraction. More like expecting myself to have a level of energy and perhaps concentration that is unrealistic and superhuman.

I was about to write that, depending on the sample size, the 2% differences were probably not meaningful. I see that Peter Tibbles got there first. I am flabbergasted that the researchers would publish (or try to publish) that crap and that the media idiots would give it so much credence. But then I turn off the news when the stories shift from poorly covered news to Dancing with the Stars or Charlie Sheen's latest outrageous idiocy. I don't like the distractions.

That's something that has always bothered me about science with human subjects--the small percentage that it takes to be considered a positive (or negative) result. Guess that's why findings announced one year are reversed a year or two later.

And the sell, sell sell world that we now live in drives me nuts. More money as the main consideration is ruining education, food supply, government, water purity, etc. etc.

And Madge--maybe the electronic barrage does sharpen the young folk's brains, but many times I've sat on a trolley car watching a college student wondering why the door won't open. If they looked up, down, or to the side, they would see a sign that says "To open door, step down." But many don't seem to read. They can, but they don't.

Twenty people is hardly an adequate sample? Quoting Mark Twain more or less "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

I have never been able to chew gum and walk at the same time, so multitasking is not a talent that I lost as I aged.

I do have more trouble concentrating now and trying to remember what I just read. That is irritating and slightly frightening.

One can only hope that one day we will be free of all the e-cacophony! And maybe free of the media that clearly manipulates the "news"!

You & your readers have made so many valid & intelligent points here. Not much to add except that we continue to dumb down in this country & it is terribly sad to witness. Dee

I read the article in the LAT, and I think it's just another "study" put together by people who dread what they see as the coming onslaught of the doddering boomer greyheads.

I've never understood the concept of "multitasking" as some sort of just increases the possibility of error...but then, doing things right doesn't quite have the cachet it used to.

There's a book out now called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. It's on my hold list at the LA Public Library, which has about 60 copies of it, and I'm somewhere around 40 on the list. Apparently there's lots of people who've noticed what marketing, internet and otherwise, is doing to the world.

Multitasking is a myth anyway. You can really only concentrate on one thing at a time. Multitasking just means you focus on one thing for a very short period of time, then you focus on something else for another short period of time, then you jump to something else, then something else again.

Or, as we used to say, it's like juggling a lot of balls all at the same time. And who among us doesn't have a lot of experience with that!

Once upon a time big print media such as the NY and LA Times made profits and employed science writers and editors. In those days, trash with the faults mentioned by Peter T. and others probably would have hit the wastebasket rather than page 1, or any other page.

The Internet, which is killing the more trustworthy old print media, has some important benefits. But we are paying a high price in the quality of what now passes for news.

I don't understand why Amazon is trying to sell a Kindle with ads. What a lousy idea. For me the attraction of the Kindle is that the screen reads like a book and that there are no distractions away from the text.
Both my husband and I have formidible powers of concentration. We stopped watching TV a long time ago.
Just to cheer everyone up: my absent-minded daughter just put her cell phone through the washing machine and had to call us up to get our telephone numbers so she could re-program her new phone. If she'd been old you might think her age was at fault!

Sample of 20? Why would the LAT even publish the results? At best, it might be a pilot study for a statistically valid one.
As for multi-tasking, we elders have more sense than trying to do several things at the same time. Like the young woman I noticed at a Monday morning bottleneck who was apparently texting while she brushed her and drove her car.

LA TIMES: "Researchers from UC San Francisco recruited about 20 adults—average age 69—to play a brain game while being monitored with an fMRI machine."

Fack check from "Supporting Information" PDF for the study in question, "Table S1. Demographic and behavioral data:" Younger = Age 24.57 y (18–32), Sex 11 male, 9 female; Older = Age 69.1 y (62-76), Sex 7 male, 10 female!

So much for accuracy in media... ;-)

Another quote I like is figures don't lie, but liars figure. As a retired statistican, I can vouch that the sample size is rediculous, as several folks noted above, but that is the problem with psychological studies. The samples are always small, yet we get wrapped around the axle over the results. Dianne

The statistical differences are in percentage POINTS,not percentages. This makes a difference but I've never been clear on why. Dianne, can you explicate?

It's absolutely true that we are bombarded with distractions practically from the moment we awake. Television is especially pernicious. Try this sometime: mute the sound of your TV and just watch the video for a while. You'll see that each scene is quite short -- often only a second or so in length. This is true especially when you're viewing an advertisement, but many modern TV programs are edited this way as well. It's like watching a high-speed slideshow. There is nowhere for the eye to rest, and I am convinced this "scene speedup" has neurological effects. I quit watching television back in 1987, and looking at it now, in a hotel room or wherever when I'm traveling, actually makes me queasy.

I so agree with the comments about distractions! Hate those jumpy web pages, pop ups, pop unders and noise...websites with videos that start automatically as soon as you open the page. Terrible!

A little off topic, but still related was the NPR story the other day about gerontologist Dr. Mark Lachs' 108 year old patient "living alone with all her marbles" as he put it.

He credits her unusual longevity and abilities to a trait called adaptive competence...the ability to bounce back from stress.

I'm not sure the ability to multitask matters that much. For some tasks, it's easy, and others not so much (and not so good!)

I just listened to (NPR/WAMU) Diane Rehm interview Sherry Turkle on her new book, "Alone Together," in which the noted MIT professor and clinical psychologist focusing on technology and society envisions a world that doesn't function without technology but one in which humanity has precedence. A marvelous interview and I'm eager to read the book. NY Times book review:

I'm not a statistician, and I am glad to see folks with that expertise commenting. I was in public information for a marine research agency for many years then later for a marine research lab. Learned early to check how a study was conducted, who was putting out the news release and did they have an agenda they were promoting.

There are so many so-called news sources now vying for anything new and different to print that everything is a story. I take it all as a grain of salt. Much of the popular research to which we're subjected has little credence. Now only is the number of subjects in a study important, any research with a margin of error greater than + or - 3% of less statistical significance -- one of the first things I look for whenever I'm presented with research findings or read any of the multitude of surveys conducted by every Tom, Dick and Harry plus Mary, too.

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