Tag Archives: multitasking

Arc of Attentional Focus: Has Someone Picked Your Pocket While You Experienced “Inattentional Blindness”?

Apollo Robbins

Apollo Robbins

Glitches in human perception and cognition are vividly illustrated in Apollo Robbins’ interactive Las Vegas show, “The Gentleman Thief.”

He tells his “targets” in the audience that he is about to steal from them, then uses visual illusions, proximity manipulation, diversion techniques, and attention control, to complete his imperceptible heists.
Robbins returns belongings, which kept him out of trouble when he lifted possessions of former US President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service agents.

In addition to the entertaining curiosity of Robbins’ feats, his skill is relevant to improving perceptual skills in normal and cognitively-impaired people, and in reducing traffic accidents, industrial mishaps, and security violations.

He overcame congenital motor-skill deficits by monitoring the focus of a target’s attention: “If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.”

Kim Silverman

Like Kim Silverman, Research Scientist at Apple, Robbins creates “false assumptions…that look like reality…

The U.S. Department of Defense accesses Robbins’ skills at its Special Operations Command research-and-training facility at Yale University, where he an adjunct professor, despite his non-collegiate education.

Barton Whaley

Barton Whaley

Defense application of these perceptual manipulation skills were identified by Barton Whaley of the Naval Postgraduate School and Susan Stratton Aykroyd in their Textbook of Political-Military Counterdeception.

Their historical survey of deception and counter-deception practices asserted that conjurors’ principles were substantially more advanced than those used by U.S. political or military intelligence analysts in the 1970s.

Stephen Macknik

Stephen Macknik

SUNY Downstate’s Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde collaborated with Robbins on Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deception.
They reported empirical results supporting Robbins’s observation that the eye will follow an object moving in an arc without looking back to its point of origin.
The curved motions may be more salient, novel, and informative than predictable linear edges, so attracts greater attention and is useful in deceptive illusions.

Susana Martinez-Conde

Susana Martinez-Conde

Cognitive errors that lead to perceptual illusions of “magic” suggest diagnostic and treatment methods for cognitive deficits from brain trauma, autism, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease, they argued.

Insights from magic performance can help patients focus on the most important aspects of their environment, while suppressing distractions that cause confusion, disorientation, and “inattentional blindness” (focusing so intently on a single task that one fails to notice things in plain sight).

Richard Wiseman

Psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire demonstrated inattentional blindness when viewers fail to notice environmental changes when focusing on a card trick. 
Similarly, Transport of London’s Public Service Announcement reminds viewers that it’s easy to miss things you’re not expecting in “Did you see the Moonwalking Bear?

Wiseman argued that people can “recognise hidden opportunities in … life,” by reducing perceptual blindness, in his research-based book, Magic in Theory: An introduction to the theoretical and psychological elements of conjuring.

Daniel Levin

Daniel Levin

Daniel Simons

University of Illinois’s Daniel Simons and Daniel Levin of Vanderbilt University demonstrated observers “seeing without seeing” in experiments involving people passing a basketball as woman in a gorilla suit walked through the action.

With Harvard’s Christopher Chabris, Simons reported that half of observers said they did not see the gorilla when they were counting the number of ball passes by one team.

Christopher Chabris

Christopher Chabris

However, the same people easily recognized the gorilla when they were not focused on a distraction task.

Edward Vogel

This findings illustrates that most people are unable to effectively multitask because they have limited capacity to hold a visual scene in short-term memory (VSTM), according to University of Chicago’s Edward K. Vogel and Maro Machizawa of Hiroshima University and separately by Vanderbilt’s René Marois and J. Jay Todd.

Gustav Kuhn

Gustav Kuhn

Gustav Kuhn of University of London collaborated with magician Alym Amlani and Ronald Rensink of University of British Columbia to classify cognitive, perceptual, and physical contributors in Towards a Science of Magic:

  • Ronald Rensink

    Physical misdirection by a magician’s gaze or gesture in “joint attention,”

  • Psychological misdirection with a casual motion or prolonged suspense to distract from the trick’s mechanics,
  • Optical illusions that distort the true size of an object,
  • Cognitive illusions to prolong an image after the object has been removed,
  • Physical force and mental force influence “freely chosen” cards or other objects in magic tricks.

Rene Marois-J Jay Todd

Perceptual and cognitive illusions can cause people not to see things that are clearly present, which can lead to overlooking interpersonal cues and life opportunities.
Even more serious is the link among inattention, traffic accidents, and victimization by criminals.

Mindful awareness helps people attend to the present moment, to more attentively experience opportunities and relationships while mitigating potential perceptual misinformation.

-*How to you maintain focus to reduce “inattentional blindness”?

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Task Switching Skills Improved With Musical Training

Ira Hyman

Ira Hyman

“Multitasking” is more accurately described as “task switching” because people typically can’t effectively sustain split attention.
However, it is possible to alternate between two mental tasks, but there is a “cognitive switching cost” in decreased speed and performance accuracy.

S. Matthew Boss

S. Matthew Boss

One vivid example of performance decrements when performing simple “multitasking” is illustrated in a study of walking while using a mobile phone, conducted by Western Washington University’s Ira E. Hyman Jr., S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise-Swanson, Kira E. McKenzie, and Jenna M. Caggiano.

Ira Hyman-Unicycling Clown Attentional BlindnessThey found that walking and talking caused most volunteers to experience “inattentional blindness” to unicycling clown.

Breanne M Wise-Swanson

Breanne M Wise-Swanson

In addition, the “multitasking” participants walked more slowly, changed directions more frequently, and were less likely to acknowledge other people than individuals.

Hyman and team concluded, “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity,” and went on to note the dangers of driving while talking on a phone.
In fact, a previous blog reviewed the evidence for reduced driving performance when listening to music, a less-demanding activity than texting or talking on a telephone.

Ranate Meuter

Ranate Meuter

Even switching between two well-practiced languages can reduce cognitive processing speed, found Queensland University of Techology’s Renata Meuter and University of Oxford’s Alan Allport.

They asked bilingual participants to name numerals in their first language or second language in an unpredictable sequence.
Participants responded more slowly when they switched to the other language, indicating a “cognitive switching cost.”

Volunteers named digits associated with a background color in their first language or second language.
They named digits in their second language more slowly, but were slower in their first language after the language changed from the previous cue.

Jeffrey Evans

Jeffrey Evans

Involuntary persistence of the second-acquired language interfered with participants actively suppressing their original language, leading to delays when responding in their more well practiced “birth tongue,” they argued.

As tasks become more complex, the performance-hampering effects of task switching increase, according to United Stated Federal Aviation Authority’s Joshua Rubinstein with Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer of University of Michigan, who evaluated switching between different task like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects.

David Meyer

David Meyer

Like Meuter and Allport, they noted that people switching tasks navigate two stages of “executive control:”

  • Goal shifting: “I want to do this now instead of that,”
  • Rule activation: “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”.Rubinstein’s team estimated that traversing these phases can reduce productivity by much as 40 percent, and noted that the problem is compounded for individuals with damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Linda Moradzadeh

Linda Moradzadeh

However, musical training seems to reduce the costs of task switching, found York University’s Linda Moradzadeh, Galit Blumenthal, and Melody Wiseheart.
This team matched more than 150 similar age and socioeconomic status participants who were also:

  • Monolingual musicians (averaging 12 years of musical training) or
  • Bilingual musicians (averaging 12 years of musical training) or
  • Bilingual non-musicians or
  • Monolingual non-musicians.
Galit Blumenthal

Galit Blumenthal

Volunteers performed task switching and dual-task challenges, along with intelligence and vocabulary measures.
Musicians demonstrated fewer global and local switch costs compared with non-musicians and bilingual volunteers.
This finding contrasts other results regarding bilingualism’s advantage for task switching performance in a previous blog post.

Melody Wiseheart

Melody Wiseheart

In addition, Moradzadeh’s team found no benefit of combining bilingual expertise with musical training to reduce task-switching costs,

These results suggest that musical training can contribute to increased ability to shift between mental sets in both task switching and dual-task efforts, thanks to “superior ability to maintain and manipulate competing information in memory, allowing for efficient “global” or holistic processing.”

-*To what extent do you find “multitasking” an effective practice to accomplish cognitive tasks?

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Women’s Multitasking Skill Linked to Neural Network Patterns

Diane Halpern

Diane Halpern

Differences between men’s and women’s performance on cognitive tasks, particularly mathematics and science have been observed for decades, with men generally excelling at motor and spatial tasks and women excelling in memory and social cognition tasks.

Camilla Benbow

Camilla Benbow

Claremont McKenna College’s Diane F. Halpern led an extensive review of these performance differences with Camilla P. Benbow of Vanderbilt University, University of Missouri‘s David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur of University of Pennsylvania, Janet Shibley Hyde and Morton Ann Gernsbacher of University of Wisconsin. 

David Geary

David Geary

Their evidence “provided no single or simple answer” to contrasting skills by gender but a comprehensive brain imaging study of more than 400 males and more than 500 females between ages 8 and 22 years, provides evidence for popular observations.

Madhura Ingalhalika

Madhura Ingalhalika

Using diffusion tensor imaging, University of Pennsylvania’s Madhura Ingalhalikar, Alex Smith, Drew Parker, Theodore D. Satterthwaite, Mark A. Elliott, Kosha Ruparel, Raquel E. Gur, Ruben C. Gur and Ragini Verma with Hakon Hakonarson of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, demonstrated that male and female brains differ in the network of neural connections.
Known as the “structural connectome,” these connections between neural structures were described by Indiana University’s Olaf Sporns, who reviewed imaging techniques to visualize their activity.

Ted Satterthwaite

Ted Satterthwaite

These gender-linked structural differences result in differing competencies.
Ingalhalikar’s team observed that male brains structures show more connections within the front and back of the brain hemisphere in the supratentorial region.

Olaf Sporns

Olaf Sporns

This area connects perception and coordinated action and enables males’ skill in quickly perceiving and applying information to a single complex task, spatial reasoning, and learning motor skills.

Ingalhalikar connectomeIn contrast, female brains contain more neural connections between hemispheres in supratentorial regions. 
This connection pattern enables females to recall faces and execute multiple complex tasks simultaneously more easily than males due the increased neural connections between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

Dardo Tomasi

Dardo Tomasi

Building on earlier work on these differences by Brookhaven National Lab’s Dardo Tomasi and Nora D. Volkow of National Institute on Drug Abuse, Ingalhalikar’s team found these differences were reversed in the cerebellar connections, where male brains showed greater intrahemispheric connectivity and female brains demonstrated more interhemispheric connections.

Nora Volkow

Nora Volkow

These structural differences lead to different development for girls and boys from an early age, and result in significant, less modifiable differences by adolescence and adulthood. 

Frequently-observed differences in male and female performance are rooted in different neural connection patterns by gender.

 -*What exceptions have you seen to findings of women’s skill in multitasking and social insight, and men’s competence in spatial reasoning and motor skill acquisition?

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