Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

We are natural born multi-taskers

Date:
December 22, 2011
Source:
McGill University
Summary:
Scientists have found that we are natural-born multi-taskers. They found evidence that we can pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

Imagine you're a hockey goalie, and two opposing players are breaking in alone on you, passing the puck back and forth. You're aware of the linesman skating in on your left, but pay him no mind. Your focus is on the puck and the two approaching players. As the action unfolds, how is your brain processing this intense moment of "multi-tasking"? Are you splitting your focus of attention into multiple "spotlights?" Are you using one "spotlight" and switching between objects very quickly? Or are you "zooming out" the spotlight and taking it all in at once?

These are the questions Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a cognitive neurophysiology specialist from McGill University, and his team set out to answer in a new study on multifocal attention. They found that, for the first time, there's evidence that we can pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

"When we multi-task and attend to multiple objects, our visual attention has been classically described as a "zoom lens" that extend over a region of space or as a spotlight that switches from one object to the other," Martinez-Trujillo, the lead author of the study, explained. "These modes of action of attention are problematic because when zooming out attention over an entire region we include objects of interest but also distracters in between. Thus, we waste processing resources on irrelevant distracting information. And when a single spotlight jumps from one object to another, there is a limit to how fast that could go and how can the brain accommodate such a rapid switch. Importantly, if we accept that attention works as a single spotlight we may also accept that the brain has evolved to pay attention to one thing at the time and therefore multi-tasking is not an ability that naturally fits our brain architecture"

Martinez-Trujillo's approach in getting to the bottom of this long-standing controversy was novel. The team recorded the activity of single neurons in the brains of two monkeys while the animals concentrated on two objects that circumvented a third 'distracter' object. The neural recordings showed that attention can in fact, be split into two "spotlights" corresponding to the relevant objects and excluding the in-between distracter.

"One implication of these findings is that our brain has evolved to attend to more than one object in parallel, and therefore to multi-task," said Martinez-Trujillo. "Though there are limits, our brains have this ability."

The researchers also found that the split of the "spotlight" is much more efficient when the distractors are very different from the objects being attended. Going back to the very apt hockey analogy, Martinez-Trujillo explained that if a Montreal Canadiens forward is paying attention to two Boston Bruins in yellow and black, he'll have a more difficult time ignoring the linesmen, also wearing black, than if he was in a similar situation but facing two Vancouver Canucks with blue and green uniforms, easily distinguishable from the linesmen in black'.

In the next generation of experiments, the researchers will explore the limits of our ability to split attention and multi-task -- looking more closely at how the similarity between objects affects multi-tasking limits and how those variables can be integrated into a quantitative model.

This paper was published this week in the journal Neuron.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by McGill University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Robert Niebergall, PaulS. Khayat, Stefan Treue, JulioC. Martinez-Trujillo. Multifocal Attention Filters Targets from Distracters within and beyond Primate MT Neurons' Receptive Field Boundaries. Neuron, 2011; 72 (6): 1067 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.10.013

Cite This Page:

McGill University. "We are natural born multi-taskers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 December 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111221140459.htm>.
McGill University. (2011, December 22). We are natural born multi-taskers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111221140459.htm
McGill University. "We are natural born multi-taskers." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111221140459.htm (accessed August 1, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Dieting At A Young Age Might Lead To Harmful Health Habits

Dieting At A Young Age Might Lead To Harmful Health Habits

Newsy (July 30, 2014) Researchers say women who diet at a young age are at greater risk of developing harmful health habits, including eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
It's Not Just Facebook: OKCupid Experiments With Users Too

It's Not Just Facebook: OKCupid Experiments With Users Too

Newsy (July 29, 2014) If you've been looking for love online, there's a chance somebody has been looking at how you're looking. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Your Face Can Leave A Good Or Bad First Impression

How Your Face Can Leave A Good Or Bad First Impression

Newsy (July 29, 2014) Researchers have found certain facial features can make us seem more attractive or trustworthy. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Losing Sleep Leaves You Vulnerable To 'False Memories'

Losing Sleep Leaves You Vulnerable To 'False Memories'

Newsy (July 27, 2014) A new study shows sleep deprivation can make it harder for people to remember specific details of an event. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins