Study: Light party conversation encourages brain to 'multitask'
Social activities encourage our mind to focus on important subjects in common talk
When one engages in small talk at a social gathering, such as the
typical party or typical get-together, it encourages our brains to
multitask, as well as hone in on what is the most important part of the
conversation. Scientists at the University of California in San
Francisco say that party talk engages our minds to edit sounds in the
midst of distraction.
This ability to hyper-focus on one stream of sound amid a cacophony of others is what researchers call the 'cocktail-party effect.' Researchers have pinpointed where that sound-editing process occurs in the brain. This function resides in the auditory cortex just behind the ear, not in areas of higher thought.
This ability to hyper-focus on one stream of sound amid a cacophony of others is what researchers call the "cocktail-party effect." Researchers have pinpointed where that sound-editing process occurs in the brain. This function resides in the auditory cortex just behind the ear, not in areas of higher thought. The auditory cortex boosts some sounds and turns down others so that when the signal reaches the higher brain, "it's as if only one person was speaking alone," principle investigator Edward Chang says.
As published in the journal Nature, the study underscores why people aren't very good at multitasking. Our brains are wired for "selective attention" and can focus on only one thing at a time. This has helped humans survive in a world buzzing with visual and auditory stimulation. But we keep trying to push the limits with multitasking, sometimes with tragic consequences. Drivers talking on cell phones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren't.
Many accidents can be traced to "inattentional blindness," in which people can turn a blind eye to things they aren't focusing on. Images land on our retinas and are either boosted or played down in the visual cortex before being passed to the brain, just as the auditory cortex filters sounds.
"It's a push-pull relationship -- the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others," Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois says.
"We largely see what we expect to see," Daniel Simons, one of the study's creators and now a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. In his book, "The Invisible Gorilla," co-authored with Christopher Chabris, the more attention a task demands, the less attention we can pay to other things in our field of vision. That's why pilots sometimes fail to notice obstacles on runways and radiologists may overlook anomalies on X-rays, especially in areas they aren't examining.
In order to prevent our brains from ignoring the obvious, researchers have a list of suggestions:
- Recognize your limitations. The brain can only fully attend to one thing at a time.
- Make your senses work together. If you're trying to listen to someone in a noisy room, look directly at the speaker.
- Focus on what's important. Many professions, from pilots to police officers, depend on keen powers of observation. Training and practice help. But experts say things like chess and video games won't likely expand your overall attention skills.
- Allocate blocks of time to specific tasks. Sometimes a deadline can force people to focus.
- Avoid distracted driving. Don't talk on a cell phone, text or give voice commands while at the wheel.
© 2012, Catholic Online. Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Conversation, multitasking, auditory, visual, study
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