Exploring the Crossroads of Attention and Memory in the Aging Brain Views from the Inside

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thank you everyone for coming on a
Thursday night here we are really in for
a treat tonight we are very lucky to
hear adam gazali the title of the talk
is exploring the crossroads of attention
and memory in the aging brain views from
the inside and he gets to the inside
things that are brain activity it’s very
hard to measure in in many different
ways so he has an amazing program of
research that we’re going to hear about
he was born and raised in New York City
he got his MD and PhD from Mount Sinai
in New York and his did his residency in
neurology at University of Pennsylvania
and then he traveled across to our coast
and did his postdoc at Berkeley and were
very lucky that he landed here at UCSF
he’s the director of the neuroscience
imaging Center at UCSF and is an
associate professor in neurology
physiology and psychiatry he runs a very
exciting big lab and trains many young
scientists and he won the UCSF mentoring
award recently he’s also very committed
to translation of science to the public
and I’m just dizzy looking at the list
of different media outlets where where
he has spent time translating his
science for everyone he studies top-down
modulation of neural networks perception
attention and memory and how these are
altered with aging and with disease
states and lastly how to improve them
through video games and other techniques
that we’ll hear about today
he has authored over 60 original
scientific articles given much over 200
talks it was hard to get him tonight’s
we’re happy he said yes and and has won
many awards so I’ll let you hear from
him directly thank you for coming
so thank you very much for the
invitation it’s exciting to be here I
love this program I think it’s really
important and I’m excited to be a part
of it so we’re going to spend some time
now and talk about this topic of
interest of mine and hopefully you’ll
find it interesting as well I’m going to
tell it from a lot of different
perspectives this is a sort of talk that
it builds off a lot of my own research
for my lab but also a lot of what people
in the field have been studying so I’ll
take it from there and let you explore
it with me
so yes it’s funny how sometimes this
slide just speaks to an audience and I
don’t have to say much but for those of
you that are fortunate enough to not
know what’s going on here this is the
frustration that you feel when aftering
after having left the couch minute
seconds ago you arrive at the
refrigerator with no idea of what you
intended to go there for some people
refer to this as a classic example of
the senior moment but I’ve learned over
the last years of talking about this
that this is a moment that most people
can share it’s certainly not senior
selective but although it does changes
as we get older it raises some
fascinating questions you might in this
particular case be holding one single
item in mind and only five seven seconds
later can’t remember it right we know
that the ability to remember an item is
within the capacity of all of us so how
is it possible that our memory is so
fragile that we can forget something
that we had in mind even a single item
and that’s something that we’re going to
explore today how how this happens in
the brain how does it let us down on
these seemingly pretty straightforward
memory tasks before we move on and talk
about how this happens I just want to
pause and talk about how remarkable the
brain is it’s capable of incredible
rapid processing parallel processing of
information which enables us to
interpret complex stimuli in our
environment within a
second it has a massive storage capacity
by some estimates over the course of our
lives we remember 1 billion bits of
information which is 50,000 times the
text stored in the Library of Congress
also although it seems very small the
brain is a massive structure so also
estimates place the number of neurons in
the brain at the sort of in the ballpark
of stars in the core of our Milky Way
galaxy around 100 billion but what’s
even more impressive is not the number
of neurons the primary principal brain
cells but the connections between them
hundreds of trillions of connections
really creating a network of staggering
complexity but I don’t have to tell you
a lot of cool facts about the brain for
you to appreciate it right every action
every thought you have every sensation
every emotion you experience your very
sense of identity all emerges from the
functioning of your brand despite the
strength of our brain it has some very
distinct weaknesses which leads to that
problem that I started the lecture with
I just want to highlight three of them
one is attention the limitation of
attention the second I’m going to talk
about isn’t it something known as
working memory and the third thing is
speed of processing so let’s just step
through these three things really
briefly attention you know based on your
own experience that you can’t just
distribute your attention everywhere at
the same time you have to make choices
you have to be selective about your
attention attention has been referred to
as a spotlight it’s something that you
direct and move around a really classic
famous example of this is the cocktail
party effect so you’re at a party you’re
facing someone you’re having a
conversation with them you might not be
terribly interested but instead of just
turning around you can actually direct
your attention what you’re hearing to
other places in the room okay
so maybe that’s not being overtly rude
but at least it’s something that our
attention allows us to do and that’s an
example of covert attention your ability
to direct your attention without even
moving you could even do with your
vision so attention although it’s
amazing we have an incredible ability to
focus our attention it’s a limitation in
terms of how widely can be distributed
speed limitations so we process
information incredibly rapidly as I
mentioned before if you especially if
you look down at the level of the neuron
but as I mentioned the brain is a
network of areas interacting with each
other so when you have very complex
cognitive tasks when you’re doing
something very complicated with all
these communications going on processing
speed actually becomes a factor so all
these operations keep adding up like a
domino effect so we see some limitations
and how fast we could process
information the third thing is working
memory for those of you that don’t know
working memory is it’s the ability to
hold information online in your minds
just for very short periods of time in
order to guide your behavior so a
classic example of it is the is the
phone number right you you don’t you’re
unlikely to remember a phone number that
someone tells you the next day you sort
of just remember it long enough to get
it into the phone all this is sort of
changed with you know cell phone digital
phones where you don’t actually get any
phone numbers they just appear on your
phone but there’s some urban myths that
even though the seven digit telephone
number exists because that’s close to
our span so there are very distinct
capacity limitations of working memory
but it changes depending on the
information so for things like digits
it’s true that it’s around seven with a
little bit of an error and variation
across people but as information becomes
more complex as you move to words five
as you move to objects three or four and
then for things like faces only two or
even one item that you can actually hold
in mind for short periods of time so so
working memory again despite being an
amazing capacity of our brain still has
limitations these limitations come
together and give our brains a
sensitivity to interference so I’m going
to define what I mean by interference
we’ve been building a framework a
categorical framework of what
interferences in our lab based often
on experiences of people that feel
encumbered by it so if you try to think
right now and your own experiences of
what happens in that brief period of
time right everyone laughing up at the
side of you that’s happened to you so
think about what happens in that time
that short time period when you knew
what you wanted and so you got there and
didn’t remember it and what we found
over the years that if you ask people
this question they almost they describe
many different things but they all fall
into the category of what I would
describe of as interference something
interfered with that memory and so
interference I have now placed in our
research into two categories that it can
occur internally or externally so let’s
start with external interference and
this is all based on really personal
descriptions and then what we do is we
use this framework and take it into the
lab and try to figure out how these
things work are they really different
from each other so I break external
interference and internal difference
into two different types based on goals
the first would be what I call
distractions some people call this all
distractions but if you use the same
term for everything it gets complicated
so I call distractions distractions are
something very specific
to me they mean external information
that’s irrelevant to your goals and
you’re trying to ignore it right you
know that if you’re at a restaurant
having a conversation all that noise
around you is just preventing you from
engaging deeply in what you’re talking
and to remember it so that is a
distraction your really your goal is to
shut it out you could have that same
information and have a secondary goal
and I call that interruptions or
multitasking so it’s similar it can be
the same thing you could be at a
restaurant having a conversation but now
you’re also trying to listen to the
waiter tell the dinner specials at the
next table right so you’re trying to
multitask it’s the same information but
instead of ignoring it you’re trying to
attend it it tends to it in either case
they’re both interference in your
primary goal of the conversation and
I’ll show you a lot about how these are
different and how they impact us
differently as we get older all this
presumably happens internally although
it’s less rigorously studied because
it’s it’s hard to study internal
distractions largely because
destruction is easy we could just
distract you and see what happens in
your brain while you’re being distracted
but internal distractions arise
spontaneously so again I break it into
two different types here so I think of
internal distractions as mind wandering
right your goals are to have a
conversation but yet your mind leaves
you remember some argument you had with
your significant other or where you’re
going to have dinner later that night
and you you didn’t mean to you want
trying to a matter of fact you were
trying not to you trying to hold your
focus but your mind wandered it was an
internal distraction but you could
multitask internally - right so you
could be watching this lecture for
example and still trying to decide where
you can have dinner later alright so
then you’re doing two tasks at the same
time and and so you’re making an
internal decision to think about
something else while doing something
right almost all of us drive under these
type of circumstances for good or for
bad we’ll come back to driving a little
bit but so anyway so this is the
framework of how I view interference
almost universally some when when I ask
someone why they think they forgot that
one item when they arrived at the
refrigerator they describe one of these
or multiple of them so they’ll say well
the phone rang and I picked it up and
then I couldn’t remember what I was
doing which would be an example of an
interruption or I started thinking about
what I was going to do later on and that
would be an internal intrusion
potentially but it’s usually
interference people very frequently just
infrequently describe that nothing
happened they just got there and they
forgot if they think hard enough they’ll
remember being interrupted so we know
just based on that classic example of
the senior moment that it is
interference based and that’s what I’m
going to show you that a lot of this is
really not about memory per se but about
interference and attention so I want to
just do a slight departure I want to
start with what I just told you about
the sensitivity of your brain to
interference and ask what you think
would happen when you take your brain
and expose it to this right
so probably most of you could recognize
these elements around here and I’m sure
a lot of you engage in them and before I
go further I just would like to say that
I am not immune to this this is myself
preparing the original version of this
lecture you can see I have two very
large monitors I have my cell phone in
hand I’m listening to music I’m checking
my email you know I also engage in a lot
of this media and just to pause on the
media because it’s hard to have a
discussion about distraction and
multitasking and attention and memory
and not realize that the exposure to
interference in our environment seems to
be increasing and studies are showing
that we know there’s an explosion of the
type of media that transmits and stores
information in our lives a lot of these
are very new and more so than that the
devices that are used to transmit them
have increased and a lot of them have
become portable so not only is there
more of it but it’s likely sitting in
your pocket or somewhere close to you
right now right so but what’s even more
impressive is not the type of media and
the devices that deliver it but the way
in which we seem to use it so as I
showed you my own personal example
there’s now an incredible amount of
information that people are multitasking
their media more frequently creating
even more interference so let’s just
take a little sample who in this room
has ever checked their email while
they’re working on a document listening
to music okay pretty high how about this
one have you been watching television
while searching the internet and
receiving texts okay hi some of this
differs based on age although I’m seeing
that seem to disappear when I started
having giving versions of this talk a
couple years ago it did seem that some
of it was based on the age of the
audience was speaking to I don’t
actually detect that anymore it seems
that it’s just be spreading more and
more across society in general and some
data is definitely showing that but
there’s no doubt that it’s more
prevalent in younger children and you
probably have children you see it
yourself and there was a really
fascinating report by the Chi
a family foundation that did a report on
this is now several years old they did a
report on media use in children and
teenagers and they found some shocking
things that I’m not going to go into and
you could certainly pull that report
online but what they found that was most
surprising was how much multitasking of
the media was taking place so they went
back and did a whole other study just
focused on media multitasking and it’s
really interesting I mean almost 95% of
all people report multitasking sometimes
using more than one form of media a
third of their day and the children
sometimes it’s off the charts how many
things they use simultaneously I just
like these descriptions here so this is
a 17 year old boy that says I multitask
every second I am online at this very
moment I’m watching TV checking my email
every two minutes reading a news group
about we shot JFK burning some music to
a CD and writing this message this 15
year old girl writes I’m always talking
to people through Instant Messenger and
then I’ll be checking email doing
homework and playing games and talking
on the phone at the same time so these
these are not some rare reports right
this is basically what’s what’s going on
in terms of of how we are interacting
with our environment more and more so in
a top of all that there’s another change
that’s less documented but we all know
about it
and it’s the change in expectations
right so now that we have this constant
access to our information people expect
responsiveness and almost continuous
productivity so you might be on vacation
and you check email does anyone do that
in this room has anyone ever been been
been guilty of that right so there was a
time probably when vacation was
considered a place that you don’t check
work email but now that almost seems
invisible the distinction between them
and likewise you get a text from someone
and although you’re engaged in something
else this is feeling that if I don’t
respond back maybe they’ll think I’m
ignoring them it happens with emails too
so there’s also this pressure for
engagement that I think increases the
type of interference that we feel so one
of the things that that were exploring
in in some way not directly necessarily
but at least by contact with other labs
and looking at the literature
that you know this is the variety and
accessibility of electronic media the
expectations for responsiveness are
causing increased interference and this
is having an impact on cognition and
other aspects of our lives and maybe you
know even impacting the quality or the
effectiveness of our lives and I’m going
to explore some of that so given all
that right how do we function at all how
we just not paralyzed by all of this
multiple streams of information that we
can ignore on our brains that are so
fragile and sensitive to interference so
how we do it is through this process of
cognitive control so there’s a term from
our field that I’m going to tell you a
little about perception right how we
perceive the world around this is not a
passive process the world just does not
flood into our brains we shape how we
perceive the world based on attention
really two types of attention influence
perception one is external stimulus
driven attention so this is how the
environment imposes itself upon how you
perceive it an example would be if you
hear your name even quietly
you pay attention more so than if you
heard another name if there’s a flash of
light a loud sound anything very salient
a very novel demands your attention
independent of your goals the other type
of attention and this is another way
another term used for this is bottom-up
attention bottom-up coming in from the
environment the other type of attention
is internal goal-directed attention what
you’re doing now you’re focusing your
cognitive resources and what you’re
hearing and what you’re seeing because
you choose to and this is also referred
to as top-down top-down control top down
modulation all of our perception is
influenced by these two sources of
attention that pull it in different
directions and one interesting thing
that we now appreciate more and more is
that these influences on your perception
then go and sculpt how you remember
things both in the very short term and
the long term and this is really what we
study in our lab how your goals compete
with the environment to dictate how you
perceive things and then how you
remember that and then how that changes
as we get older okay so let me give you
an example of this so here’s a scene
random scene I did not sculpt the scene
I found it searching on Google
but it’s interesting the more I looked
at it the more I found really salient
examples of what I’m talking about so
let’s say that the focus of this story
is this young gentleman here he’s
sitting at a table in this busy
restaurant and he’s having a glass of
wine with these other three people and
if he has any hope of remembering the
details of that conversation he would be
paying attention right we all we all
could know that but you see he’s not
right because there’s some type of
bottom-up influence here right something
in the environment maybe it’s a fight or
an argument it’s it’s it’s loud enough
or strong enough to pull his attention
away from his goals
and strong enough to attract the
attention of three other people in the
room but there’s another interesting
thing here is that this woman is so
engaged in her text message that even
though she’s physically closest to this
she seems like totally oblivious to it
and it raises some interesting questions
that we take very seriously and I’ve
been looking at for a while what is
going on here is this an example of
successful focus and failed focus which
it might seem at first or is this
successful ignoring and failed ignoring
over here now a lot of us think that
that would be the same thing so I
basically just said the same thing twice
if you pay attention better of course
you’re ignoring better and basically
it’s this that people for a long time
and I think a lot of people still feel
intuitively that focusing and ignoring
the two sides of the same coin they
travel together there they’re attached
well we don’t think they’re attached at
all we have lots of data from our lab
showing that focusing and ignoring the
two totally separate things
driven by separate systems and they
change differently and you could be
focusing just fine and failing to ignore
they can dissociate I’m going to show
you some examples of that let’s talk
about what’s happening inside the brain
so this is a picture of the brain this
is the front of the brain here this is
the back of the brain your eyeballs
would be here your ears would be here
and what I’m showing you here this red
is the occipital part the visual part of
your brain so when you process visual
information in the world around you when
you’re looking at something it goes
through your eyes and it travels through
structures and winds up at the back part
of your brain where it’s processed in
its most fundamental way so you
basically take a part of seeing the the
elements of the scene like the direction
of lines and colors and orientations and
movement the simple parts in this back
Party of brain and then it travels along
these streams forward in your brain and
the attributes of your environment
become integrated together and this
gives you the complete view this
complete representation of your world so
this is bottom-up and top-down
influences occur through the front part
of your brain your prefrontal cortex
this is I’m going to talk about this
more in a second but we now know that
there are projections from this part of
the brain and the cortex these axons
have sort of like the highways in the
brain that send in influence to the
visual parts your brain or the sound
part of your brain the smell party brain
all the senses have representations and
what we call the primary cortices then
their activity is modulated that’s why
sometimes required top-down modulation
the activity is modulated by these
connections and they’re either more
represented or less represented not
based on anything in the environment but
based on your goals does that make sense
so that’s how you shape how you perceive
things is that these connections
modulate the activity either up or down
depending on your goals relevant or
irrelevant in the sensory areas of the
brain the prefrontal cortex is the part
of our brain that is most human eye it
is what gives us our control and you
could see here the difference in not
just the size of the brain so this is
not actually how big a squirrel’s
bumkey’s brain is next to a human this
the point here is not the overall size
of the brain it’s the part of the brain
that’s occupied by the prefrontal the
frontal part of the brain it’s you could
see how small it is getting bigger even
in a chimpanzee compared to a human so
it is really the part of our brain
that’s evolved the most and not just in
terms of size actually size is even its
relation and size is not really the most
amazing part but it’s the connectivity
of this part of the brain through these
networks to the rest of the brain that
gives us this amazing control this
top-down control the ability to direct
how we perceive and act in the world
based on our goals opposed to based on
what we are
just reflexively responding to in our
environment so these animals a much more
goal direct a much more bottom-up driven
than goal directed right we know that if
you have pets you can see them respond
in a way that’s very sensitive to the
environment and not so goal-directed
there’s another creature that has this
issue with poorly developed prefrontal
cortex it’s also bottom-up driven do you
know what that creature is right
children right so now now it seems
obvious right so if we look at the
development of the brain starting from
five years old 20 years old so this is a
study that compiled longitudinally MRI
scans and looked at the development and
the maturity of the cortex the mature
cortex being the the cool of colors like
the purples and the blues and the reds
and yellows being the immature cortex so
obviously the five-year-olds brain has a
lot a long way to go but what’s
interesting is that even the teenager’s
brain has some way to go in the
prefrontal cortex you can see here even
in 20 year olds not fully matured
compared to you know a 40 year old
cortex so this is probably apparent to
you if you interact with even teenagers
right they might have a goal but they
are very sensitive to an influence from
the environment and so you can see it
especially in younger children right
pointed in certain direction they look
really dedicated on accomplishing
something and you show them you know
some candy or something else and they
just have a whole new goal just like
that respond right to the environment
and so that is you know an example of
how our prefrontal cortex controls how
we perceive things and it’s this control
that allows us somewhat to deal with
interference because we have choices
that we can make I’m going to come back
to that Google now has the question what
happens when cognitive control is
exceeded right because it does get
exceeded well what happens is that there
appears to be a very broad impact on our
lives across many different things I
study the impact of this on cognition
but that is only
tip of the iceberg it’s only a piece of
it I know it the best it’s what we study
in our lab it’s what I’m going to talk
about the most today but as I started
thinking about this topic and reading
about it more on talking to other
scientists study it from different
perspectives you could see that it has a
really broad impact on our lives it’s
not just memory that’s impacted by
interference it’s probably almost
everything I’m going to give you little
quick examples of these other things but
I’m going to really focus now on my
research on cognition so my lab is here
at UCSF I work on the Mission Bay campus
on the other side of town and I’m going
to give you just a quick overview of how
our lab works I look at research in a
lab as occurring in three different
streams so the first is basic mechanisms
of the brain
how does it work and we use three
primary tools for that we use functional
MRI which allows us to you’re probably
very familiar with MRI scans which are
largely to look at the structure of the
brain but if you have the exact same
tool and you use a different sequence
just the sequencing of it the software
really you can look at activity in the
brain now it’s not neural activity it’s
blood flow but the blood flow relates to
neural activity so it lets us see which
parts of your brain are being used more
when you’re doing something so we create
experiments on computer screens and
we’re clever figured out clever ways to
get that inside the MRI scanner and you
do these experiments just like you would
almost play a video game and do a
psychology experiment but while you’re
doing that in real time with a delay
we’re looking at what’s happening in
your brain so we can understand how the
human brain functions while engaged in a
task EEG allows us to do basically the
same thing it’s a little more
comfortable you just put a cap on eg has
the advantage of seeing electrical
activity in the brain so it lets us see
when events are occurring in real time
down to the millisecond level EEG though
you can’t tell exactly where it’s coming
fMRI you can tell very well where it’s
coming from but it’s delayed so we use
both of these tools the strengths and
weaknesses are complementary
transcranial magnetic stimulation is a
way to stimulate the brain using a
magnetic field to see what happens when
you stimulate it what is that part of
the brain really do
not just in terms of a correlation with
something but in terms of causality what
happens when it’s perturbed so this is
another tool that we use once we
understand these basic mechanisms as
best we can we then use the same tools
in the same paradigms which are the
programs that we create to study the
brain to look at how it changes the way
the population that we study most in our
lab are healthy older adults usually 60
to 80 year olds
now we’re dipping lower and now we’re
starting to look at across the whole
lifespan so that is the population that
we study the most and in our lab and
compare those brain activity those
patterns of brain activity to the
patterns we see usually in 20 to 35 year
olds so those are the groups that we
tend to study the most but these tools
are used by labs to study every type of
population healthy populations and every
disease you can imagine we then ask can
we improve these abilities through the
knowledge that we gained on these left
two streams right we know we think we
have an idea how it works as best we can
we think we understand what’s changing
can we use that information on our tools
to create interventions to drive the
neural processes back to a more optimal
state and improve the behavior along
with it that’s our idea we have
collaborations with pharmaceutical
companies looking at drugs that change
neurotransmitter receptors which are the
main chemicals that communicate between
nerve cells these are the same drugs
that are used to treat many psychiatric
and neurological conditions we look at
how they work in improving interference
resolution the type of things I already
started telling you about we also look
to see how brain training programs some
of which are developed commercially and
a lot recently are being developed in
our own lab based on our experiments
might selectively improve these
abilities and we use our brain recording
tools and the measurements that we found
out here to see are they actually
working and if not can we use this
information to design better
interventions so that’s how our lab
works so I’m going to give you a little
taste of it one of the the main
questions we ask is and this is related
to what I already told you but how
attention and memory interact with each
other so for a long history of
psychology attention and memory will
often view two separate operation
separate functions or separate textbooks
about them but we know based on
experience alone that they interact very
strongly right so if I was going to ask
you who’s going to remember the details
of this event this young woman quietly
reading this book where the gentlemen
that we already talked about in the
restaurant everyone would say this
person we know that your memory does not
occur in a bubble it’s influenced by
your ability to attend and the context
of what’s going on around you I found
this really beautiful quote it’s the
earliest quote I could find about this
topic it’s not by a scientist
psychologist and neuroscientist it’s by
Samuel Johnson a British author but it
really summarizes exactly what I’m
talking about so I’m just want to read
it so he says that the true out of
memory is the art of attention that no
man will read with much advantage who is
not able at pleasure to evacuate his
back in those days everyone was men
apparently but obviously it’s meant more
broadly now if the repositories of
thought already full what can they
receive and if the mind is employed on
the past or the future the book will be
held before the eyes in vain and it’s
amazingly insightful quote I think
there’s an entire career worth of
research experiments in air and we are
starting to do some of them so let me
return to the main focus of our work
which is really working memory really an
experiment that’s driven by this
observation holding very few items in
mind for a very short time what happens
I’m going to tell you experiments both
about distractions and interruptions but
I’m going to start with distractions
okay so how most experiments in our lab
and I already described this a little
bit we look at healthy younger and older
adults and we do lots of tests ensure
that they’re healthy we try to
understand how the brain is functioning
in is healthy state as it can be as it
can be in the populations that we can
find and we do both that from our eye
here’s an example of our scan which is
located right across the street over
here on Parnassus and here’s our EEG rig
that’s located at the Mission Bay campus
you see a cap on there there’s a little
view of what our data looks like
and then we go ahead and we have our
participants enter either the skin or
put the cap on and they do an experiment
so I’m going to have you do one
experiment right now I’ll have you do a
couple of them so at least you could get
an idea of what it feels like so in this
experiment you’re going to see four
pictures two faces and two natural
scenes nature scenes and your goal is to
remember the faces there’s two of them
so remember both of them and ignore the
scenes we’re not going to test you on
the scenes then there’s going to be an X
on the screen little crosshair and
that’s your period of time to hold that
in mind like you just left the couch and
you’re trying to get to the refrigerator
hold those phases of mind then we’re
going to show you another picture and
you have to say whether it matches that
or it’s a new one okay remember the face
is ignore the scenes they’re going to be
okay so prepare yourself okay here we go
was that the face it’s not the face
right now if you think he was a face do
not be alarmed doesn’t mean that there’s
anything wrong with you you don’t have
to make a clinic appointment it takes
practice to do this and people practice
for quite a bit they go in and still
then even then people make errors which
is the interesting part and when you
make an error what we’re really
interested is what’s going on when
you’re looking at the pictures and not
just the picture that was relevant but
the scenes that were irrelevant so we
can do an experiment like this this is
another view of the experiment where
this is the one that you did right
remember the faces and ignore the scenes
we could do another version so you might
do this many times and we test you so
you see what it looks like two faces
come up the scenes came up time is going
this way and then you’re tested or we
could do a flip side now the scenes are
relevant the faces are irrelevant and
now you have to say if this scene
matched one of the two scenes that you
already saw or we could do a third
version of this test where you have no
goals to remember you just look at the
faces and scenes and then you press the
direction of an arrow at the end of the
period of time and then what we ask is
how does activity in the brain change in
the visual parts of the brain that are
selective for that information it’s an
amazing finding but we now know that the
visual areas of your brain have
selectivity so you could find an area
that selectively represents a scene
doesn’t mean that the only represented
there but they’re more represented there
than other information and you can find
a face area in your brain that
selectively represents faces so we use
that information we find that first in a
different experiment and then we ask how
does activity so for scenes example how
does scenes change in activity in this
area when you remember them compared to
when they’re just passive when you’re
just looking at them
compared to when you’re ignoring them
which is what you should have been doing
and that experiment because your goal is
to remember the faces so we could look
within this area and so this is top-down
modulation right you’re seeing the same
number of scenes in all of these
different trials the only thing that’s
different is your goal is to remember
them ignore them or just pay no
attention just passively view them and
so if we look at the brain of most
twenty and thirty year olds almost
everyone we see the same thing and so
this is what we see this is the part of
your brain that’s responsive to the
we see that there’s a lot this is one
single person’s activity this is across
a whole population of 20 20 year-olds
and you could see that there’s lots of
activity and if you look at the scene
area when they are ignoring scenes
they’re seeing the same number of scenes
there’s much less activity and a very
big difference across the population and
every person shows the same pattern if
you take a look at what happens in the
passive condition it really falls in the
middle and most people what this gives
us is what we call a measure of
enhancement and suppression enhancement
is how much more activity you can have
in the visual part of your brain when
something’s relevant to you as opposed
to just passive and and suppression is
how much less activity there is when
it’s actually irrelevant to your goals
as opposed to just passive and we see
that most almost all young adults have
this suppression and enhancement value
so they’re they’re modulating like I
said earlier the activity in this part
of the brain based on their goals around
this baseline where they’re not doing
anything they’re not paying attention
and they’re not ignoring so this is the
data I just showed you so let’s take a
look at older adults because anyone know
know this finding ok it’s been a while
now that we’ve published this it’s it I
think it’s starting to permeate as a
finding and we’ve replicated it many
times and a lot of other labs have shown
it in different ways but what we find
those you that do not know is that the
older adults enhance which is sort of
the other way of saying focus as if the
20 years old there’s no difference at
all and we’ve replicated at many times
what is difference is the suppression
which as a population is not occurring
at all in this group of 60 to 80 year
olds they’re not suppressing the
information below the levels of passive
you as a population but we learn
something more interesting when we look
at all the individuals in the experiment
because it’s a very heterogeneous
population it’s not true of every older
adult we see this is the memory
performance on the face task we see that
a popular sub population of them perform
very well within one standard deviation
so very close to the younger adults we
even have this participant that did a
hundred percent on it very few younger
adults did a hundred percent so we see
really big difference then we see some
of our older adults all of which are
very healthy they went through this very
rigorous screening cognitive screening
as well we see a group that performed
more than two standard deviations from
the younger adults meaning that sort of
statistically they’re impaired from the
younger population on the memory test
then we can ask the distraction the
suppression value how does it differ
between these groups compared to younger
adults and we find that it’s only the
lower performing older adults on the
memory test that have the significant
suppression deficit this group although
numerically it’s a little lower is not
different than younger adults so what
this means
and there’s actually a correlation
between them so that those older adults
that are better suppressing the scenes
are remembering the faces better so and
we’ve shown this now many times and
younger adults too on experiments that
are a little harder than this with
moving dots and colors that the biggest
influence on your ability to remember in
this short period of time is not focus
it’s not that you don’t need to focus
it’s just that people focus really well
of all age groups and continuously
across time the thing that varies with
age and even in younger adults from
trial to trial is their ability to
ignore that has the strongest impact on
your ability to perform the memory task
there’s another interesting finding
after the experiment is over we do a
surprise experiment which just endears
our patients after having spent an hour
and a half in the scanner and what we do
in this experiment is that we show them
all the pictures that they saw on the
scanner and a equal number of new ones
and we ask them do you see this picture
before rate it I definitely didn’t see
it I definitely saw it or I’m not sure
but I think I’m not sure but I think not
and everyone feels this is a total waste
of time because they’re not really sure
about a lot of them but the reality is
it’s not a waste of time at all that the
ones they saw on the scanner they rate
infinitely more statistically
significant that they saw than the ones
that they did not see that’s very very
strong finding but that’s not so
interesting what’s interesting is how
they rate seeing the stimuli that were
irrelevant like the scenes that you saw
that were that you were ignoring how
well do you remember that scene right
you should remember it right I mean it
was not part of the test but when we
compared the higher memory old adults on
the short-term
to the lower-performing we find that the
lower working memory performing older
remember the scenes that were irrelevant
better and they remember them better
than the younger adults so they have
better memory for things they should not
have remembered right so it shows you
how complicated memory is right you
can’t just say they have a memory
problem the memory looks really good
over here it looks like better than 20
year olds but it’s an example that this
information is not just getting
processed and affecting their working
memory in the short run but it’s
sticking inside the long-term memory now
in all fairness some people look at this
as an advantage of aging that because
you accept more information and you have
a larger knowledge base of things around
you and that there might be advantages
in terms of things like creativity in
general I think having a suppression
problem is a deficit because it impacts
your immediate goals but there are
certainly different views on this so I’m
giving you both sides of it but this is
definitely a change that occurs as we
get older for good or bad we did another
experiment where we asked how quickly
does this occur so a second which is how
long those pictures up for is a long
time in the brain right events are
occurring on the millisecond level
that’s a thousandth of a second so since
events occurred a long time we have a
lot of processing that it goes and we’re
asking the quote we ask the question
when does this happen so to look at that
we use EEG which I already told you has
very high what we call timing resolution
and allows us to see when things are
occurring I’m not going to show you the
data for the sake of time here but I do
want to tell you that what we found was
that younger adults are suppressing the
irrelevant information in the first
tenth of a second that it appears which
is amazing a tenth of a second after
it’s up they already have less activity
than they do in the path of you the
older adults are not but if you look
later in the second the younger and
older adults look the same so we
interpret this is that it’s not that
with aging the ability to suppress is
gone it’s just delayed but with
irrelevant information if you let it in
the the problem is they’re already the
interference has been created you could
try to get it out but it’s never going
to be as effective at least
that’s our interpretation is that you
have to stop it at the gate you can’t
allow it in this irrelevant information
so even just a delay of a half a second
is associated and the correlation is
here too that this delay is associated
with poor working memory I’m just
holding those two items in mind so this
is an example of distraction a relevant
information that’s getting in against
you will and interfering with your
ability to hold just a couple items okay
we just completed a set of four studies
that I’m going to tell you about because
they’re all quick and related to one
another but asking the same question how
does distraction impact long-term memory
not working memory right so holding
things for a longer period of time so
this is the experiment we did we had our
participants take a look at a hundred
and sixty-eight pictures you can see
them here so what they had to do is
answer questions if they could carry
them and other questions about them and
you can see here there are three crowns
and four couches and four vacuum
cleaners I think they’re Statue of
Liberty’s every time but they’re four
vacuum cleaners it’s the New Yorker in
May and you have to answer these
questions about them but what you don’t
know is that after an hour you do
another experiment you know you have to
do an experiment you don’t know what it
is but what the experiment is is a
memory experiment of how many items were
in each of those pictures so you hear
you hear one of the names it might be
crown’d and you have to say three right
everyone reports using mental imagery to
do this you probably know what mental
imagery is it’s it’s a commonly used
term for those of you that don’t it’s
your ability to create a representation
in your brain of something in the world
that’s not actually in front of you
right so you can imagine these vacuum
cleaners and picture and then
essentially count them and try to see
how many of the work this is the tool we
don’t tell people to do this is what
everyone does for very visual things
this is a very effective form of memory
is to use mental imagery the interesting
thing about this experiment is that we
did it on the three conditions with
their eyes open looking at a gray screen
their eyes shut or their eyes open
looking at a busy
visual picture that more mimics what you
might see around you in the real world
so it’s a very simple manipulation and
what we found was that if you look at
the detailed memory not the familiarity
but the detailed recollection of how
many items there were the memory drops
with the visual distractor versus the
gray screen and when your eyes are shut
so your memories actually better when
your eyes are closed it’s amazing that
this experiment had not been done you
don’t need an fMRI scanner to do this
but your memory and a lot of you might
even have that experience it you
remember things better there’s some data
related to it so for example if later I
tried to do this experiment with an
audience and it failed miserably so I’m
not going to do it but you can do it
yourself so go home and over the next
couple days talk to a friend look them
in the face and ask them to tell you
it’s some detail what they had for
dinner the day before and what you’re
going to see is that they look away from
you when they try to do it you could
probably almost feel yourself trying to
do it right now to look away the problem
with the audience is that people don’t
like to look at people they don’t know
it I figure that out once I try to make
people do that and you have to be
looking at someone see this this effect
this is actually a study that showed
that people the more you look away
actually helps your memory that’s very
similar to this finding that the but
they don’t say why and we show here and
I’m going to show you quickly some
neural data that shows that it is the
distraction it’s the representing of
this irrelevant information that
decreases your ability to recall from
memory what you were trying to find so
you might ask okay well this is a busy
visual picture that I’m looking at and
I’m trying to recall this visual memory
so maybe it’s because it’s a visual
memory in a visual picture so we did the
exact same experiment to look at that
but here what we did was we always kept
your eyes open looking at a gray screen
but we manipulated what you heard so is
either silence white noise like Shh or
restaurant noise we ran into a
restaurant we just taped the normal
chatter that occurs in a restaurant did
the exact same experiment and what we
found was exactly the same thing no
interaction basically looks like visual
even though this is now an auditory
distraction it has the same
impact on you recalling the visual
memories right so this is not meant to
be a public service message that you
should be walking around with blindfolds
on and earplugs in right it just meant
as an example to show how sensitive your
long-term memory is even to the normal
environmental stimuli around you the
visual and auditory decreases the
quality the detailed recollection of
those memories I won’t go into this but
we find there’s a brain network as I’ve
been talking about between the front
part of your brain the control part your
brain the hippocampus these areas of
your brain on both sides that are
involved in forming memories and also
retrieving memories and the back part of
your brain and this network is fragile
and when you open your eyes this network
decreases and the relationship between
this network falling apart is associated
with you not remembering those items so
we’re beginning to understand what’s
occurring in the brain while while this
happens and while you’re distracted okay
what happens as you get older so this
was just published I think a couple
weeks ago we did this experiment you
probably could guess the answer to this
it’s always sad to have to deliver the
bad news but this is an index the higher
it is the more distraction there is and
you can see that older adults doing that
exact same experiment the visual
experiment have a bigger disruption on
their ability to recall the memories
than the younger adults and this is
control overall memory memory
performance okay that’s distraction and
its impact on on working memory and
long-term memory I’m now going to show
you a little bit about interruptions so
here’s a new experiment okay so in this
experiment you’re going to remember a
face hold it in mind for just seven
seconds and then you’re going to see
another face and you just have to say if
it’s a match yes I saw the face or not
really easy one face okay here we go
okay very good house correct okay we’re
going to do it again this time is a
little catch you’re going to it’s going
to be the exact same experiment except
in that period in the middle another
face is going to come up for that face
that comes up you have to make a
decision about it you have to decide
whether it’s a male over 20 or under 20
but then you go about the original
business of trying to remember that
first face right so this is multitasking
so same thing remember face but it’s
like you’re getting a phone call in the
middle you’re going to have to make a
decision you don’t to say it out loud
and then at the end you have to make the
memory decision for the first phase does
everyone get it okay so give it a shot
it was did that feel harder it’s
actually it’s actually a little harder
it’s subtle but it’s consistent across
people and it’s not just older adults
it’s younger adults that also have a
little have an impact of this so this is
the no interference condition this is
the interruption condition where you
make decision about a face there’s
actually a third condition we actually
study distraction in this too there are
face pops up in the middle and you don’t
have to do anything with it you just
have to ignore it and what we find is
that younger adults if you look at their
working memory their ability to remember
the face it drops significantly subtly
but significantly meaning that it’s
consistent small drop from person to
person which is what was meaningful to
us with just having an irrelevant face
pop up in the middle and then a bigger
drop when you have to remember what when
you have to make a decision about that
face which is something we see again
interruptions are more disruptive than
distractions right the actual going to
it that other task is more so this is
what it looks like for our healthy older
adults right so they show overall low
working memory so it’s not only related
to interference unfortunately we could
have only one thing to deal with here
but distraction this is what I already
showed you before right the distraction
effect here is the interruption effect
the interruption effect is even larger
than the distraction effect behaviorally
so then we did an experiment where we
looked inside that doing fMRI what’s
happening inside their brains in terms
of those networks between the front part
of the brain and the visual parts of the
brain so here is the network that we
found between the front part the
prefrontal cortex and the part that
represents scenes in this experiment is
a little different than the one I just
showed you you have to remember scenes
and then the faces interrupt you but
it’s basically the same idea and we can
ask how the connection stays as you go
from the encoding period that’s when
you’re trying to when you first see it
to the period when you’re holding it in
mind to the period that you’re
interrupted or distracted and then to
the period where you’re holding it in
mind after that okay and we can look
across the three tasks and this is what
it looks like in the no interference
task so there’s a high connectivity we
actually find the connectivity that’s
highest over here
and then just see what happens and you
can see it’s pretty much stays flat it
looks like there’s a little divot here
it’s not significant it might be real
it’s been shown that your memory trace
even without being interrupted fades a
little bit and we know that before this
is the pretty much the same period of
time that you wait before you’re going
to be tested again there’s usually a
boost where you anticipate that you’re
going to be tested so maybe this is real
it wasn’t significant but generally
we’re really interested in how it
differs from the other tasks here’s what
it looks like with distraction so first
of all I should point out these these
are the younger adults right so these
are the the twenty to thirty year olds
and we see it looks exactly the same
which is what we find what distraction
is how you resist distraction is you
hold the activity the connectivity in
the brain that was there before hand you
just resisted by not letting go you
maintain the connection you resist the
impact of it on that memory connection
that you’re holding in mind this is what
it looks like in the younger adults when
they’re interrupted does that make sense
so what you’re seeing here is that this
connection looks the same over here then
the interruption occurs they make the
decision about the face and it drops
significantly it’s actually not
significantly above zero here but it
comes back up to the same level before
the stimulus is even but before you even
test it just in that delay period - we
can see we call this reactivation the
network is reestablished
after you’re interrupted that’s how
young adult performs this test how are
older adults that have the bigger into
the bigger effects of it this is what
their pattern looks like so you can see
what’s happening it looks everything
looks the same until after the
interruption is gone and then it does
not come up to the same point so
interestingly enough what we found here
was that the impact of distraction and
interruption in older adults are due to
two different things
distraction is caused by / attention -
irrelevant information interruption is
not / attention to the interrupting
information the amounts of attention to
the interrupting information looks
exactly the same across younger adults
in every way we can measure it what’s
is how the memory network is reactivated
after the interruption does that make
sense there’s another piece of the
puzzle here if we look at the connection
between the front part of the brain and
the phase part of the brain the the
information that’s interrupting we find
this so this is what it looks like in
younger adults so it starts slow because
they’re scenes over here it only goes up
in the condition where you make the
decision about the face when the when
there’s no face which is the yellow or
the face is a distractor it stays flat
and then after so now this network only
comes up when you make decision about
the face and then just disappears right
goes back to the baseline level older
adults look like this so does everyone
see what’s going on here the difference
again is after the interruption it’s not
just that they’re the participants in
the study are not reactivating the face
they’re not letting go of the and
they’re not just reactivating the scene
they’re not letting go of the face
they’re not disengaging from it it’s a
problem that we’ve seen in other studies
now we call it like a stickiness of
processing sort of it just sort of stuck
in processing it too long whether or not
one is causing the other we’re not
really sure but we now see in more and
more of our experiments that there is a
problem with letting go of information
after it’s no longer relevant and this
might prevent re-engaging okay so let me
give you a couple cartoons to summarize
this so for distraction the prefrontal
cortex acts as a bouncer right so
scary-looking bouncer deciding exactly
what information is on the guest list
that’s what gets in it does this through
its connection that it maintains with
the visual parts of the brain so the
visual parts brain has a limited
capacity it is way smaller than this
picture I’m having trouble finding a
picture of just four people at a party
but that’s really what we’re talking
about here right it’s a very small
capacity depending on the information
and it prevents more information from
getting in when it fails you have an
impact on your performance because the
information that’s let in interferes
with the information that you’re trying
to hold
that’s how distraction is mediated
multitasking is different but it’s the
same part
the brain the prefrontal cortex and
there’s lots of parts of the prefrontal
cortex this is way more complicated
because different parts do different
things but I’m trying to give you at
least a simplified overview of generally
how this works here the prefrontal
cortex acts as the flight controller
it’s deciding what is the priority right
now right so it does that also through
connection so you could see here this
insane bicycle messenger in New York is
texting while riding a bike next to a
cab and his brain is telling him to
focus on the traffic right now maybe
they’re approaching a turn but then it’s
focus on the text but what it doesn’t do
is that right it doesn’t actually have
simultaneous streams of information for
complicated processing right this is
often referred to as a bottleneck the
central bottleneck it’s what leads
people to consider multitasking to be a
myth that when you’re dealing with
complex processing it’s not really
multitasking it’s switching and that’s
what we saw in our experiment right when
you win even when the younger adults
when they process that face it
interrupted they left the memory task
only to return to it and so that is what
caused what happens with each of these
switches you have a cost sometimes
called a switching cost this is a delay
you come back it’s not at the same level
of fidelity all these things contribute
to a decrease in performance which is
now well appreciated for when you
multitask and when you’re distracted
they drop the level of performance
compared to doing a single thing at a
time we’re now starting to extend this
out and say well is this about being 60
and 80 compared to 20 or 30 what happens
to all those years in between those it
just stays steady and then decline in
your later years we just complete
experiment this is unpublished data we
used a totally different task I’m not
going to go into it here it’s not a
memory task it’s a perceptual task and a
and a motor task but we did it in 180
people from 20 to 80 years old and try
to look at what the multitasking costs
might be what we mean by cost is how
much worse you do when you do two things
as opposed to one thing this is a
detection to a discrimination task so if
it’s zero it means that the same means
that there is no cost
and we could do this for distraction and
multitasking and so this is what it
looks like this is the distraction line
this is the multitasking line you could
see it’s not that they’re flat and then
get worse when you get older they really
start dropping especially for
interruption which is already
significantly different from 20 year
olds at 30 year old so they drop through
the entire lifespan and distraction
seems to have a little bit later but
still significantly dropped by 40 years
old so this is not entirely unknown it’s
unknown for distraction and multitasking
as far as I can find and we’re excited
about this finding but for these type of
abilities what we call fluid cognitive
abilities things that demand a lot of
dynamic processing like working memory
being one of them processing speed in
general decision-making inhibition these
things decline early in life unlike the
more static memories like episodic
memory memory of vocabulary and
information which tends to decline later
so at least when you’re thinking about
it from this point of view aging is not
something that’s related to being six
through seven like aging is not being 23
years old
essentially it’s something that starts
early and is a lifelong process that we
can all enjoy together but so it’s it’s
I think that the concept of it is
changing drastically sometimes I give I
give public talks and if the topic is
aging and I’ll look around the audience
is like full of 30 year olds and 40 year
olds and they’re like we’re aging and
they’re right you know they recognize
already a difference in their
performance compared to when they were
younger and there’s a lot of attention
on performance right now for good or for
bad and you know people can notice these
changes so it’s interesting to see that
how early they can occur okay I’m just
going to give you a little brief tour of
other types of consequences of
distraction and multitasking so that
this is not just solely about memory
impact on safety this is from a
colleague of mine Dave David strayer’s
work he has shown some really shocking
consequences of these type of behaviors
while driving you’re probably already
familiar with this but dry
cell phone using a cell phone while
driving increases your risk of a traffic
accident by fourfold so this is not
subtle it’s a massive increase it’s
illegal to drive in many places because
of it and it’s even illegal to text now
in a lot of places including California
which if you didn’t know that’s good
piece of information to now because I
know three people that have gotten
tickets from that interestingly enough
it’s not alleviated by talking
hands-free right because the problem is
that it’s not that your eyes off the
road that’s a problem certainly but your
eyes could be on the road but your brain
might not be on the road and your brain
could easily be off the road when you’re
having a conversation even if you’re not
holding the phone so hands-free talking
is legal but it certainly does not
alleviate the problem you might ask well
should I even be talking to the person
sitting next to me that does not cause
the problem this has been studied the
impact is is when you’re having a phone
conversation and not having a
conversation with the person next to you
I mean it makes sense right the person
next to you is involved in the whole
driving experience right there is
invested in the safety of the road as
much as you are they see when something
when you’re changing lanes when
something is occurring and they might
pause the conversation unlike the person
on the cell phone is not part of the
situation is actually sort of frustrated
when you stop talking tries to pull you
back so there’s a very different
scenario between having a conversation
with someone in the car with someone out
of the car another piece of data is that
produced by this lab shows that it’s
even more dangerous than drunk driving
at the levels of alcohol that would just
at the level of legal intoxication again
not like advice to drink and drive but
it’s certainly a shocking piece of news
at how powerful the impact of this type
of multitasking is when you’re doing
something that feels automatic like
driving and a/d driving is automatic
until something changes that’s
unexpected and that’s where all the
problem comes in when someone’s chops
stops sharp in front of you that’s when
when when you need to have all those
resources driving and texting we already
talked about that this is a really
interesting case does everyone know
about this Northwest Airlines jet with
140 people on board lost contact for an
hour it was out of contact for now
flight control was going crazy where is
this plane why isn’t it landed before it
landed in Minneapolis is overshot its
destination by 150 miles does everyone
know why this occurred the pilots were
on a laptop doing learning about a new
scheduling program and unable to drive
at the same time so you know this is
this has really really serious
consequences this is a piece by a friend
of mine now Matt Rick Dahl for the from
the New York Times who wrote a piece
actually I think I helped him with this
title in our conversations and but he
uncovered some amazing evidence and I
think was 2008 over 1,000 reports to
emergency room of people hurting
themselves while walking and texting
because they tripped into something they
tripped or they walked into a pole which
was double from the year before and
double from the year before that
I don’t know what the data looks like
now but there are some hilarious and
scary YouTube videos out there of people
falling into fountains and other type of
activities so it’s certainly even things
that feel incredibly automatic are not
right you need your resources and this
type of impact is very real this is a
increasingly interesting and important
topic about the impact of it on
education and children especially this
study found that the amount of time the
college students spent instant messaging
significantly related to higher rates of
distractibility and academic tasks
notably reading and it’s a correlational
study it doesn’t have causality but it
raises interesting questions is this
because they it just displaced reading
right because they spent a lot of time
texting so they just did not read as
much but in those instances and they had
poorer performance
or is it is it because they actually
changed their style of interacting with
their environment and this has been
raised that it’s not just at a displace
reading but the way that they interact
with texting is much more quickly right
it’s quick little bursts it’s not
sustained and maybe this type of inter
action is changing the style and the
ability to actually sustain attention
for long periods of time which is what
you need to do to read so it’s
intriguing and scary but it’s certainly
something to at least think about lots
of other work going on on how the impact
of media might and multitasking instead
of actually engaging in face-to-face
conversations might change development
there’s a lot of interesting data coming
out with tween girls showing that their
ability to engage I don’t think this is
published but their ability to engage
with each other as being impacted
because they’re not learning the normal
cues that you get from face-to-face
interaction so certainly lots of
interesting things having seen data on
this but lots of anecdotes of people
sitting around the table and no one’s
actually present everyone’s in another
place communicating through the phones
interesting implications of this work
there’s some interesting data here’s a
study in 2004 on IT work is an
observational study where they watch
these workers for weeks so much that the
observers just sort of blend it into the
background after time and what they find
is that people engage in a project
defined as one unified task one goal for
around 12 minutes and after that 12
minutes they switch to a new project
only to switch back to another project
after 12 minutes and this is how they go
through the day not really sustaining a
project for very long but even more
shocking is that each of these points
were interrupted every three minutes by
an email an internet event or phone
event just as frequently introduced
internally than externally so not always
a phone call just like I’m the check
email it’s been three minutes so this
fragmented style is is really really
shocking and it’s been analyzed by the
front basics of business firm saying
that the cost to the US economy 650
billion dollars a year in lost economy
so obviously this is very hard to to
sure if that’s what it is but it’s
recognized by a lot of people is a very
serious impact on product productivity
which is a flip to the anecdotes of not
meant not very long ago when employers
were saying looking on CVS and looking
to see if you list multitasking as a
skill how well do you multitask you know
so you know it’s potentially changing
how we view it Clive Thompson of the New
York Times they have this really nice
anecdote he says our that our attention
must skip like a stone across water all
day long touching down only periodically
that our level of attentional engagement
is just so much more superficial because
it’s being turned on and off so
frequently so why do we do it right we
have a vast amount of data accumulating
from different fields that there is a
detriment and a negative impact of at
least the multitasking part of it well
here are some ideas right it’s very hard
to find data on why we do it at least in
my ability to find it but you hear these
things when you talk about it and a lot
of them I think are quite obvious so it
gives us the sense of flexibility you
have a fresh perspective when you switch
around increased variety enables us very
often to use downtime or productivity
more productively but in general it
seems that it’s more fun and this is
probably related to the fact that it
might actually have a higher reward
value such that we know one very
important part of our of our evolution
is the seeking out of novel events right
we’re novelty seeking creatures and we
get these rewards these dopamine
increases when we switch to something
novel so it is possible that this reward
structure that the amount of novel time
when multitasking is greater than
uni-tasking and that this might give us
these little bursts of reward as you
switch back and forth it’s hard to find
really hard data on that but I think
it’s sort of at least raises the
possibility if you look at other data
about how our brain responds to novelty
and reward
some have gone so far as to say that
this type of reinforcement could create
almost like an addiction where you feel
uncomfortable when you’re not
multitasking even though you recognize
it’s negative which is sort of a
hallmark of addiction it doesn’t have to
actually be pleasurable you could know
it’s destructive and still engage in it
and so it’s interesting and certainly an
important topic of research distraction
is another interesting thing people
frequently go to coffee shops to study
or to do work you see it all the time
some people here might do it I find it’s
less as people get older and that’s
probably because of the recognized
impact of that distracting environment
trying to do something like reading but
if you go into a coffee shop you will
see people working away laptops open and
raises the interesting question I mean
other things like music even more
complicated but it raises the
interesting question of why do people
seek out these environments is it just
that they’re more enjoyable or is there
a possible benefit of distraction on
productivity in some people and we’re
actually doing research in our lab right
now to figure out if that’s true or if
it everyone pays a price you just like
it so you will want to put up with it
but it’s an interesting question because
people do put themselves in distracting
environments frequently ok what can we
do about it so the way I look at it we
have two choices here we could change
our behavior or we could change our
brains in this totally terrifying way
but but certainly there are things we
can do on both sides of these so from
changing our behavior I would say I’m
frequently asked to give advice on how
you deal with this and I certainly do
not want to become like a self-help guru
that is the last thing I want I want to
be a scientist but I have actually
changed my behavior a little bit after
studying this for the last several years
and so I won’t tell you what to do but
I’ll tell you what I do so you can have
rules right
you can decide make certain decisions
right just because all this amazing
technology exists doesn’t mean that you
have to use it all at the same time so
what I do is that when I have important
tasks that really demand attention
because they demand high quality and
they might have a time stamp on them
then I try to do one thing at a time
I’ll quit my email
was just knowing that my email is open
actually makes me want to check it
that’s my own personal thing you might
find out yourself
the fact that I have to go to open it
makes me makes it easier for me not to
check it because I also feel the pull to
check the email I turn my phone off I
close my door this is what I do when I
have something important to do that
really has to have a high level of
attention and I’ll tell you what when
you do it for a while you find it can
actually be very satisfying to sustain
your attention over hours without doing
something else but I multitask for
periods of time when I’m doing things
that are less critical that are boring
because I know that I can never get
through that unless I do them all at the
same time and just switch between them
so I don’t know I don’t I think
technology is wonderful I don’t think
that multitasking is a bad thing I think
that just like everything else in terms
of nutrition and anything that has an
impact on your health or your quality of
life it’s all about choices and deciding
when you want to do them when you don’t
and how much you want to do so relief
that’s what I do in terms of dealing
with this type of influence so what can
we do to change our brain can we
actually change our ability to process
information in multiple streams and
distraction and I would say yes you can
there’s some data from other labs that
show that this can occur that with
practice you can actually get better at
it because sometimes you have to
multitask you have to deal with multiple
streams of information you have to be in
distracting environments but you’re not
going to not go to restaurants anymore
and have conversations just because it’s
noisy it would be great to be able to
control these and that’s what we’re
studying in our lab right now can we
train individuals through adaptive type
of practice to improve these abilities
so that they’re not encumbered by them
and hopefully it’ll have transfer and
have if you learn how to deal better
with interference in this situation that
we created for you maybe it’ll go to
other aspects of your life that’s at
least the hope so we designed this video
game with a video game professionals in
the Bay Area who are friends of mine and
we’re willing to participate in this
research experiment this is an early
view of what it looked like it’s a very
primitive video game at least it’s
actually developed a lot more now it’s a
car that you’re driving on
laptop and you’re pressing the button
when certain signs come up so green sign
only a green circle only not a green
Pentagon and so you’re doing two tasks
at once you’re both driving which is
really hard to keep yourself on the road
and you’re doing the sign task and we
could actually look at your performance
when you’re doing driving alone a sign
alone and then look at how what happens
when you put them together that’s
actually the data that I presented
across the life than those people
playing this game and we think that if
you play this and the game keeps getting
harder as you get better you’ll develop
the ability to do both of these things
at the same time and hopefully that’ll
lead to other abilities and so we bring
you into the lab participants we just
completed the study two years and it’s
funded by the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation it had 60 older adults in it
healthy older adults and they came into
the lab we did eg recordings with an
experimental version of this game and a
hole and two days of cognitive testing
then they go home with laptops and they
play the game for 12 hours single hour
sessions so one-hour session over the
course of a month so you play it three
times a week for four four weeks so it’s
a good amount of exposure but you know
modest people play video games for a lot
more than that our participants found it
pretty fun I think that the game could
be more fun it’s actually a big goal of
ours now is to make it fun we’re looking
at iPads as a new medium and so they
take these laptops home and while you
play the game at home it sends your data
how you’re performing on the game to a
Dropbox account and right to our lab
server so you can see your performance
in real time in our lab while you’re at
home and then you come back into the lab
and we look at how your brain has
changed how your performance has changed
on this game and we now are looking into
having EEG caps at home so you could put
this cap home on play the game and
record your brain activity it sends it
Bluetooth right to the laptop right to
the lab so we just move our lab right
out of UCSF right into your home that’s
that’s the goal and then we’re looking
at fMRI before and after so I didn’t I’m
not going to show you into that data
it’s all coming out now I think it’ll be
all very exciting and I’ll share with
you another
time when we put together the full story
so I just want to conclude and tell you
that you know I think that this type of
research at least understanding it might
improve our ability to deal with
distraction of multitasking and how it
impacts our memory maybe help prevent
fragile you know moments like this that
might not be very serious but more
serious things that might occur on the
road or in the office at the very least
I think an understanding of how our
brain interacts with our environment
will allow us to make better decisions
hopefully that will lead to healthier
more effective higher-quality lives
thank you
so the question was that women are
better multitaskers men are better at
linear thinking first of all I’ll say
that it’s really hard to believe that
looking at data I know it exists as lots
of thing that exists we spent a long
time in the scientific literature there
are examples over there examples the
other way it’s not entirely convincing
from the scientific data at least not my
view of it in our own experiment we
found no gender differences there were
some things that were subtle we might we
might not have had enough participants
to have the power to look for those
effects so I I can’t answer but the fact
that we didn’t find anything so the
question was since these type of dense
media experiences that I described
they’re newer potentially children that
are digital natives that are growing up
with the right now have a different
wired brain to deal with it
most certainly they do I mean our brain
is constantly rewiring itself so even
throughout your lifespan that’s how our
brain works that’s plasticity brains
change in structure and function in
response to the environment that’s just
how they work so most assuredly if
they’re interacting with a very
different type of environment their
brains are wired differently before it I
think that’s true doesn’t mean it’s bad
or good but you know all brains are
different based on your experiences but
whether it’s good or not or how it
affects them if they’re better at that
but there are consequences likely that
that’s the case
it is unclear there’s some data out of
Stanford a couple years ago that looked
at college students and and gave them a
questionnaire about how they use media
looking for multitasking use of it and
then they split them into the heavy
media multitaskers and the low media
multitaskers and what they found was
that when they brought them into the lab
and did a series of cognitive tests that
are related to multitasking like
distraction and task switching tests
that the heavy media multitaskers were
worse at it right but this is
correlational data right so it has a
chicken-and-egg problem that you don’t
know whether or not it made them more
distractible maybe it had benefits and
maybe distractibility is one of the
consequences that could very well be or
if people that were like this were the
people that tended to
they task more so it’s interesting and
provocative I think but it doesn’t
answer all the questions and we’re
actually doing studies along those lines
in our lab now we have colleagues now
that that focus on attention deficit
disorder as a condition and children
that we’re collaborating with and we’re
even looking at adult ADHD you know a
lot of this rings of attention deficit I
understand why you asked that question I
get that question a lot
you know they’re different criteria that
use clinically to diagnose it than we do
in our lab none of these are clinical
criteria but it’s interesting to me and
it’s definitely something that we’re
going to look at the question is can
silence be a distraction yes so we
actually have a grant to study that
right now there that actually is my
hypothesis with that there is an equally
prevalent world of internal turmoil and
getting distraction and all the testing
that’s going on here that I didn’t talk
about since I introduced them but we
know that this is a massive impassive
impact on our behavior sometimes it
could be pathological like in cases of
PTSD and traumatic brain injury
where or obsessive-compulsive disorder
for sure where people are ruminating on
internal thoughts internal distractions
in a way that that prevent them from
from attending to their goals and then
even outside of pathological conditions
a lot of people feel the impact of
internal distraction and one of the
questions that that we were one of the
hypotheses that we think that people
might go too distracting environments to
work is that if your silence like a
library that quiet allows this internal
distraction to take place which can be
very disruptive and that potentially
putting yourself in an externally
distracting environment engages the
suppression system and quiets the
internal noise and then allows you to
focus it’s just an idea but it’s
something that we’re looking at I’m glad
I’m glad people agree with that
now we’ll figure it out we have two
years to figure that out who didn’t ask
question back there so the question is
is this evolutionarily driven our desire
our apparent desire to multitask a lot I
think I don’t know for sure but my
intuition is that yes not sort of what I
was talking about that there is an
evolutionary drive I believe to not just
seek but but to explore right we know we
have this exploration drive we seek out
novelty we switch it’s what allows us to
find new environments it probably has a
survival advantage which is why we have
it and I think some of that experience
is there in multitasking chip so I don’t
know if it has survival advantage
anymore but it doesn’t matter right
because if it did during our formative
stages of our brain we can have it
vestigial II and it could even be
negative in modern society and we would
still have it so yeah I mean I don’t
know that for sure I’d love to talk to
an evolutionary biologist about it but
my intuition is that that that makes
research on the effects of meditation on
memory and these things so that the
grant that I told you about with the
internal distraction what I call the
coffee-shop experiment the second part
of that grant was to see if meditation
which is large there’s lots of different
types of meditation but concentrative
meditation is really about this at least
my reading of it is that you focus on
something like your breath you keep
yourself aware of when you’re internally
distracted you recognize it and then you
return to your focus that sounds very
much like what we’re talking about here
so the second part of that grant is to
look at meditation in a sort of video
game that I created to try to push it to
push it hard especially people that are
naive to meditation to see if we can
teach people how to self-regulate
internal distraction that’s the idea is
there like an optimal age given that I
showed that peak and I would say 23
from looking at the data it looks like
you got one good year is any 123 right
these are your good old days right now
pay attention to them next year you’re
already going to be disappointed
somewhere somewhere around there so why
why do people have breakthroughs very
early I mean you know that’s it differs
four by specialty where people’s main
sweet spot is and you know I don’t I
don’t know all the data on why that is
but you know a lot of advances do happen
later in life I mean the one thing that
doesn’t decline there’s a couple things
that don’t decline but one thing that’s
well noted to not decline is wisdom
which actually increases like you’re
taking your experience and your
intelligence bringing it together and
having better decision-making abilities
and that’s something that grows with age
so you know I think that some people
have their breakthroughs older in life
depending on you know the things that
they’re doing but things that demand
high focus and very intact fluid
processing are stronger really young so
you know I think it probably has
something to do with the type of
abilities where they peak and how that
relates to what you’re doing so the
question is what why why does this
happen what happens as we get older -
cause this mat is an entirely other long
lecture I will throw a couple out there
yes that is one of our major questions -
I didn’t even touch on that but
obviously right we want to know why
there are lots of changes first of all
the changes that occur in every organ
system you’re probably familiar with
that of your body besides just your
brain right so degeneration of systems
across every species is is built into
our genetic code this is what happens
with life it starts it goes through a
decay you know goes through a process
and lots of things change the amount of
chemicals the neurotransmitters in your
brain change the connections between the
brain cells the axons are often damaged
with age that’s something that’s very
common the brain shrinks in size but
interestingly enough holds
to vitsin neurons we used to think that
you lost a lot of brain cells as you got
older we don’t think that as much
a lot of the brain cells are there but
they’re smaller the branching is smaller
so there are lots of changes that occur
in the brain with age that are
associated with these changes in
cognition but the brain is still plastic
right and that’s the good part if it
wasn’t for plasticity this would be a
lot less interesting of a field to
research but because the brain retains
its plus the city which is reduced from
younger age it’s capable of still
reforming and reshaping itself choose
stimuli on the environment so this is
what drives the idea that with the right
type of decisions and how what you do in
your life you can maintain a lot of
these abilities or at least better than
you can if you don’t oh thank you