Thursday, June 1, 2017

Juggling and managing complexity

This is my second post about our summer read Your Brain at Work by David Rock.  Today I read Chapter 3 which is about juggling.

As I wrote yesterday, there is a limit on how much information your brain can hold at any one time, and also a limit on what you can do with that information.  When you try to do too much, your brain is unable to cope and therefore cuts back on accuracy or quality.  Rock writes that while it's possible to hold several pieces of information in your mind at once, you can't perform more than one conscious process at a time and still maintain your performance.  The analogy he gives is that you can drive and chat on a well-travelled route, however when you go to a new destination you need to focus and so people tend to chat slower.  If you are really challenged, for example by having to drive on the other side of the road in a different country, you will really need to focus hard on just staying on the correct side of the road and will have little room for talking.  I've seen the same thing, for example, when I moved to Switzerland and some students had a German keyboard where the Y and Z were "switched".  When using those keyboards my typing speed really slowed down as I was having to focus on every word.  This also reminded me of my son, who has a handwriting issue.  If he is concentrating on keeping his writing legible, then it interferes with his thought process.  If he thinks at his usual pace, his handwriting becomes almost illegible.

Rock writes that there are 5 main mental processes:
  • Understanding - which involves creating new maps in the prefrontal cortex that represent new information that needs to be connected to existing maps in the rest of the brain (long-term memory)
  • Decision making - which involves activating a series of maps in the prefrontal cortex and then making a choice between them
  • Recalling - which involves searching through the billions of maps already in your memory and bringing the right one into the prefrontal cortex
  • Memorizing - which involves holding maps in the prefrontal cortex long enough to embed them into long-term memory
  • Inhibiting - which involves trying not to activate other (not relevant) maps.
Rock writes that each of these processes involves the complex manipulation of billions of neurological circuits and that you have to finish one operation before another can begin.

Some years ago Dr Larry Rosen visited ASB and he talked to parents and teachers about multi-tasking.  Actually he said that people cannot multi-task, they can only task switch.  When we do two cognitive tasks at once we are affected by something known as dual-task interference, and our cognitive capacity drops dramatically.  Doing two tasks at the same time also doesn't save us time - because it takes twice as long with our diminished capacity.  Rock writes, "The lesson is clear: if accuracy is important, don't divide your attention."

However many people still try to do several things at once, paying partial attention to each one.  For example there are times when I've Skyped with my son and I know his mind is somewhere else as it's taking him longer to converse and answer questions.  And doing too much by being "always on" leads to a drop in IQ which is greater in men than in women.  This always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace lifestyle has also huge impacts on our health, as it leads us to feel an artificial sense of crisis where our flight or fight mechanism kicks in.

Another reason for multi-tasking leading to lower productivity is because when you hold many tasks in the "background" this decreases the amount of brain power than can be used to focus on something at any given moment.  Because of this, when you multi-task accuracy goes down.  For long-term memories to form you need to pay attention to information.  I've noticed that if I'm checking my mail, for example, at the same time that I'm Skyping, then I come away from the call with little memory of what was discussed.

Can we learn to juggle lots of different information?  Rock thinks we can if we do the following:
  • practice specific activities over and over again until they become automatic - the example he gives is learning how to drive or learning how to type.
  • make decisions in the right order - for example if a thought keeps recurring it could be that a decision you need to make is holding things up.  Decisions get caught up in "queues" and are a great waster of your brain's resources.  This leads back to my post yesterday about prioritizing - taking the time to work out the right order in which to take decisions can save a lot of effort and energy.
  • mix up your attention - if you have to do several things at once you need to limit the time you spend on this.  Rock suggests we consciously decide how long we will split our attention, and then after this go back to focusing on one thing.
A few weeks ago I went away to Alibaug (near Mumbai) on a yoga and meditation retreat.  The idea of meditation is to clear your brain of all the distracting thoughts.  My mind was obviously really cluttered - I found it hard to even count up to 20 with an empty mind, without thoughts flooding in and taking over.  Distraction is something that really keeps me from using my time efficiently, and it's the subject of the next chapter.  I'll be blogging on this over the weekend.

Photo Credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro Flickr via Compfight cc

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