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