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How We Pay Attention

NPR recently interviewed Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of The Invisible Gorilla. Chabris and Simons had some fascinating things to say about how we pay attention.

The famous gorilla video goes something like this — even for those of you who've seen it, I think you should watch this one.

FLATOW: Let's talk about multitasking is everywhere in the news because people are doing, they're doing, they're tweeting at same time they're typing. They're listening to our show on the radio. They're driving. Is it a fallacy that we're able to multitask? And which one of you want to take that?

Dr. CHABRIS: It's a fallacy that we're able to multitask and do two or three or four or five things just as well as we could do them if we did them one at a time.

The problem is that we don't really get the sense of how badly we're performing these multiple tasks at once, and we think we're doing them just fine.

This is, for example, one of the reasons why some people talk on the cell phone while they're driving because they don't get the sense that they're driving less well than they actually are. They don't get the sense that they're missing unexpected things because, of course, they don't see what they're missing.

And that's part of the power of the gorilla experiment, actually, is it sort of shows you vividly what you're missing when you're focused on one task, and it gives people an insight that they don't necessarily get in everyday life when they're multitasking around and don't notice the mistakes they're making or the errors they might be making.

FLATOW: Daniel, have anything to add to that?

Dr. SIMONS: Yeah, I was going to say one of the other interesting aspects of this is that people often don't really know what they mean by multitasking. So there are different forms of multitasking.

You can have a whole bunch of things to do and be thinking about all of them and switching among them, doing one at a time, and that's very different from trying to do two things at exactly the same time.

So you can think about this like trying to talk and chew gum and whistle at the same time. You can't do all three because your mouth is necessary for all of them and in different ways.

Well, the same's true of our mind. If you're trying to do two things at the same time that require the same cognitive skill or ability, you just can't do both at the same time as well.

FLATOW: How good are we at paying attention to any one thing? Are we designed to do that, or because, you know, we have all this peripheral vision that we're always on the lookout for something else, the jungle mentality, coming out of that jungle.

Dr. SIMONS: Well, I think there's probably a range of individual differences in how well people can stay focused on one thing. But it does seem that our attention system, the way our mind works, is designed to help us focus on one thing and to filter out things that we don't care about.

It's just a side consequence of that is we sometimes filter out things that we might care about if we knew they were there.

FLATOW: Is there any one way to get you to focus better, any situation you should put yourself in? One kind of thing I have seen in this generation, meaning the last 20 years, it's certainly true of my kids, they say they focus better with music, while listening to music or doing their homework, which was, you know, absolutely the opposite. My parents would never let me have the TV on or listen to music. But is there any truth to that claim that they can focus better with that kind of distraction?

Dr. SIMONS: As far as I'm aware, there is no truth to that claim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SIMONS: However, I'm not surprised that kids would make the claim that they can focus on lots of things at once and that music helps them and that the TV in the background doesn't distract them and so on because there's something about the way our minds are constructed, you know, teenage minds, adult minds, whatever, that keeps us somewhat out of touch with how well we're performing tasks on a moment-by-moment basis, and we very easily convince ourselves we're doing things well and that certain conditions are good for performance when in fact we don't have a lot of insight into how well we're doing things.

This leads to phenomena like overconfidence. We don't really know how well we've doing various things. So it's not surprising that people would say, oh, yeah, I can do things really well with all the stimuli I like coming at me all the time.

FLATOW: But what about soothing, classical music in the background? I mean, I know you worked with the Mozart Effect. Tell us about that.

Dr. SIMONS: Well, the idea of the Mozart Effect, which came on the scene in the early 1990s, didn't have so much to do with background music, although people may have took it that way. It had to do with listening to classical music, specifically Mozart's music, right before taking a test.

And the claim was that if you listen to 10 minutes of Mozart's music and then took an IQ test, you would score nine points higher, and that's really a lot in IQ-test terms. That's like going from, like, you know, a C student to a B-plus or something like that. Wow, 10 minutes of Mozart's music, that's all it takes.

It turns out that many people tried to reproduce that same effect and failed, and there probably is no Mozart Effect, or it's just an artifact of you hear music you like, it puts you in a slightly better mood, and it's good to be a good mood when you take a test. You don't want to be in a bad mood when you're taking a test, no evidence that it really sort of fundamentally changes the brain or re-organizes the way your neurons or anything fancy like that.

Read or listen to the rest

Still curious? Two books on the subject are the 4.5 star rated CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! and the four star rated Invisible Gorilla.