Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Why do You Turn Down the Radio When You’re Lost?


You’re dri­ving through sub­ur­bia one evening look­ing for the street where you’re sup­posed to have din­ner at a friend’s new house. You slow down to a crawl, turn down the radio, stop talk­ing, and stare at every sign. Why is that? Nei­ther the radio nor talk­ing affects your vision.

Or do they?

In talk­ing about using a cell phone while dri­ving, Dr. Steven Yan­tis, a pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Brain Sci­ences at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, had this to say:

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, talk­ing on a cell phone) it nec­es­sar­i­ly extracts a cost on anoth­er modal­i­ty (say, the visu­al task of dri­ving).”

He’s talk­ing about divid­ed atten­tion, or the abil­i­ty to mul­ti­task and pay atten­tion to two things at once. It’s gen­er­al­ly much hard­er than selec­tive, or focused, atten­tion. The fac­tors that come into play are your atten­tion­al capac­i­ty and the pro­cess­ing require­ments — essen­tial­ly how much of which areas of your brain are need­ed to process the input.

Your atten­tion­al capac­i­ty can be tak­en up by inhibit­ing (tun­ing out) dis­trac­tions, divid­ing your atten­tion across mul­ti­ple things, or even sus­tain­ing your atten­tion on one thing (vig­i­lance). Fatigue takes a big toll on atten­tion. If you’re tired, it’s hard­er to con­cen­trate. Depres­sion has a sim­i­lar effect. In fact, many mem­o­ry com­plaints may be actu­al­ly depres­sion or fatigue-relat­ed reduced atten­tion­al capac­i­ty.

And guess what? Get­ting old­er both reduces your atten­tion­al capac­i­ty and increas­es your pro­cess­ing require­ments. Basi­cal­ly, it takes more and more inhi­bi­tion skill to tune out dis­trac­tions and stay focused.

But all is not lost; there are steps you can take to mul­ti­task bet­ter!

How to Divide Your Atten­tion More Effec­tive­ly

  • Do very dif­fer­ent tasks: It’s much hard­er to do two very sim­i­lar tasks (read and talk) at the same time than it is to do two very dif­fer­ent tasks (run and talk). If you can use sep­a­rate areas of the brain, that will help. Warn­ing: the brain does­n’t always seg­re­gate per­cep­tu­al infor­ma­tion as clear­ly as you might think.
  • Prac­tice: If you’re bet­ter at each task inde­pen­dent­ly, you’ll be bet­ter at doing them at the same time (even if you don’t do them as well simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as when you do each one sep­a­rate­ly).
  • Keep it sim­ple: If you have to mul­ti­task, mul­ti­task­ing sim­ple tasks will be more suc­cess­ful than try­ing to prove Fer­mat’s Last The­o­rem in your head while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly writ­ing a nov­el.
  • Train your brain: A grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies show how atten­tion and work­ing mem­o­ry can be improved via phys­i­cal exer­cise, med­i­ta­tion, cog­ni­tive train­ing and oth­er approach­es.

So, you’re not nuts to turn down the vol­ume when you’re lost. By doing that, you are allow­ing more of your brain to focus on your mis­sion — to find din­ner!

To learn more:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

10 Responses

  1. Neal Cohen says:

    The oth­er day I was work­ing with an ado­les­cent and his fam­i­ly (I am a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist). The ado­les­cent has an atten­tion deficit asso­ci­at­ed with a rel­a­tive weak­ness in work­ing mem­o­ry. Although very intel­li­gent (Full Scale IQ in the Supe­ri­or range), his aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance is below aver­age.

    He believed that he would be less dis­tractible if he could be blind­fold­ed. The par­ents protest­ed his “silliness.” I thought that the ado­les­cent had an inter­est­ing hypoth­e­sis that need­ed to be test­ed out. I gave him a blind­fold that I use when test­ing sen­so­ry-motor func­tion.

    Over the next 20 min­utes the change in the adolescent’s behav­ior and the family’s inter­ac­tion was astound­ing. In short, the whole fam­i­ly set­tled down. It was clear that the ado­les­cent knew from his own expe­ri­ence that his atten­tion (and behav­ior) would improve if the demands on his atten­tion decreased.

    “So, you’re not nuts to turn down the vol­ume when you’re lost. By doing that, you are allow­ing more of your brain to focus on your mis­sion — to find dinner!”

  2. Caroline says:

    What a great exam­ple! It makes me won­der if head­phones play­ing white noise or some­thing might help him when read­ing or study­ing? Class­room lec­tures will prob­a­bly always be tough for him, although sit­ting near the front of the room would help lim­it visu­al and audi­al dis­trac­tions.

    It’s also inter­est­ing to note how cre­ative and insight­ful peo­ple are with their own con­di­tions.

    Thanks for the com­ment!

  3. Alvaro says:

    I thought that the ado­les­cent had an inter­est­ing hypoth­e­sis that need­ed to be test­ed out.” What a lux­u­ry for that ado­les­cent to count on such an open-mind­ed, empir­i­cal, ally. Thanks, Neal!

  4. Dave Bell says:

    It would seem log­i­cal that the reverse may also be true: when stu­dents focus on the visu­al, they lis­ten less acute­ly. I know when I teach music ensem­bles, I some­times must close my eyes to hear detail at its finest detail. Think of the impli­ca­tions for the class­room!

  5. Mark says:

    Anoth­er rea­son for turn­ing the stereo down could be habit. When­ev­er I’m dri­ving some­where new and there’s some­one else in the car, I’ll ask them to help spot signs etc., so I’ll turn down the stereo so I can hear what they say. Per­haps it becomes habit­u­al to turn down the stereo even if no-one else is in the car?

    Anoth­er rea­son is that I turn up the stereo while dri­ving (to counter the nois­es of dri­ving), so it’s a lit­tle too loud when the car is sta­tion­ary. Thus I turn it down just before I’m about to stop. I do this even when dri­ving into my own street (which I obvi­ous­ly would­n’t need extra atten­tion­al resources to deal with).

    None of which says that the cost of divid­ed atten­tion does­n’t also con­tribute, of course. 🙂

  6. Gwen says:

    Thank you so much for this arti­cle. I had my aha moment. My short term mem­o­ry and my abil­i­ty to recall have been com­pro­mised the last few years and get­ting worse. How­ev­er, I’ve had intense stress for a decade and have devel­oped autoim­mune and chron­ic fatigue and fibromyal­gia type pain. There’s maybe a chance that my mem­o­ries are still there, I’m just hav­ing prob­lems access­ing every­thing and focus­ing due to my brain pow­er going to the pain and fatigue.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Direct­ing atten­tion to lis­ten­ing effec­tive­ly ‘turns down the vol­ume’ on input to the visu­al parts of the brain. Thanks for the infor­ma­tion!

Leave a Reply

Categories: Attention and ADD/ADHD, Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Peak Performance, Professional Development

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)