S1 Episode 40: Information Overload

Human brains are not wired for the staggering amount and variety of daily information coming our way. Dr. Marvin Chun, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Yale University, explains how our brains evolved to do one thing at a time, why they react poorly to the demands of multi-tasking, and why distraction undermines our performance and our memory.

Dr. Stieg: In today’s fast-paced multitasking world, it seems we’re all constantly dealing with information overload. Add to this, the myriad of distractions in our day as we struggle to find the time and focus to get work and other important tasks done. How can we even think about succeeding or performing at our best with all of these overwhelming challenges? To help us understand how this lack of focus is affecting our brains and our ability to perform successfully, I’m very happy to have Dr. Marvin Chun as our guest today. Dr Chun is a cognitive neuroscientist who wears many hats at Yale University. He is the Richard M Colgate Professor of Psychology and Dean of students at Yale. He also teaches in the department of neuroscience at Yale University School of Medicine. Dr Chun’s cognitive neuroscience lab is pioneering the use of brain imaging and machine learning to study how people see, attend, remember, and perform. Marvin, welcome.

Dr. Chun: It’s great to be here.

Dr. Stieg: We’ve got a lot to talk about. So I’m going to dive right into this and just remind everybody, about the end point here is talking about our ability to perform, but leading to performance, it requires attention and memory. Why do people seem to have so much trouble being productive and avoiding distractions?

Dr. Chun: Yes, so fundamentally our brains are limited in what they can do at any given time. So it requires us to focus and people have difficulty doing that because of so many demands on their perceptions and decision making.

Dr. Stieg: So then how are our brains managing this information overload? What do we as individuals or what are our brains doing?

Dr. Chun: One of the most powerful mechanisms in the brain is something known as attention. A large number of different brain areas are involved and focusing the mind on the specific task or thought in hand and either designed or I guess we should say they evolved over time to really only do one thing at a time. And yet people try to do multiple things at a time and that’s where it creates conflict and distraction.

Dr. Stieg: Do you think that there’s, in our society, there seems to be a lot of emphasis put on, you know, that special individual that can multitask. I don’t believe that. I think that we all can do one thing very well at a time, but then we bounce back and forth. You know the people that can handle multiple tasks not simultaneously but in series or in parallel.

Dr. Chun: That’s right. You are. You are correct not to believe it. There is a myth. Illusion, maybe wishful thinking that we can do multiple things at one time and it is possible but it comes at great cost both in accuracy and in speed, so we are almost always better off just focusing on one task at a time and doing things in a serial way.

Dr. Stieg:  In reading through some of your writings and listening to your Ted talks, you break attention down into two components. There’s external and internal attention. Can you define that for us please?

Dr. Chun: External attention is what people think about when they look around at different objects. Let’s say when you’re driving, you can either look at a street light or a street sign that that’s something we would refer to as external attention. Whereas internal attention is how you direct your attention to different thoughts. So for example, as you’re driving, you could be thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or what you’re going to do at work that day. That’s something that we would call internal attention because it’s really focused on memories and thoughts inside the mind.

Dr. Stieg: Linking that then to the formation of memories in order to make a memory, do we have to consciously or will it subconsciously happen?

Dr. Chun: Oh, that’s a great question. And again, it works both ways. Certainly when you direct your attention to an event or something you’re reading, that will enhance the chances that that will be encoded into your memory. However, people very frequently learn about their environment. They learn about what’s going on in an unconscious manner without deliberate attention to those things. Basically we learn about the world around us in both ways,

Dr. Stieg: And I couldn’t help but think about how this could end up playing out in a court of law. You know the, the person that’s walking down the street and all of a sudden there’s a shooting or a car accident and then you know, when that happens it draws their attention, but then they’re asked to give information, which is some was somewhat peripheral to that immediate time setting. How does, how does that play?

Dr. Chun: So when something that like a shooting or some kind of assault happens, it definitely draws attention. It also creates a huge emotional arousal, which is another factor that influences how we’ll remember an event. So basically those two things kind of interact with each other. The arousing event will draw attention and would also generate an emotional response, both of which will serve in general to enhance the memory. There is an exception where if a weapon is involved, there’s something in the literature called “weapon focus.” For example, if someone is pointing a gun or there’s a gun in the scene that draws attention so much that people don’t attend to other details of the scene, let’s say the perpetrator or other aspects of a crime scene. So that’s something called weapon focus and it obviously diminishes what people remember from an event.

Dr. Stieg: So let’s switch now to performance and this concept of being “in the zone.” I work with some professional sports teams here. I marvel at how on the sideline they can be each kind of jovial, but when you know, once they get out and on the field, it’s just monotask. What is being “in the zone”?

Dr. Chun: Yes. I think being in the zone is exactly as you just said. It’s someone who is able to really focus on the task at hand without either external distraction or even internal distraction from other kinds of thoughts, not relevant to the task at hand. And good athletes, good musicians, good performers, they have this ability and it’s what really allows them to perform at the, at the highest levels. It’s absolutely essential.

Dr. Stieg: And I’m assuming then that we would agree that this level of performance is actually due to repetitive activities in that area such that you can eliminate all extraneous thought, motion, distraction, and maximize your performance. Correct?

Dr. Chun: Absolutely. Training is essential and having repeated experiences of being focused on a task and that leading to good outcomes further reinforces this ability to focus and yes, it’s a real result of training in my view. The second thing is also a result of motivation. If an athlete or performer is really focused on doing well and motivated to do well, that helps with their attention and with their going into the zone.

Dr. Stieg: So the message to listeners is that, you know, this high level of performance doesn’t come without a little bit of pain, suffering and attention to detail. Correct?

Dr. Chun: It’s not easy to be able to go into that state when needed. So it does require a lot of training, some of which will be difficult and painful.

Dr. Stieg: This leads me into the next question about the “tiger mom” concept about really pushing your children and making them focus. Is there such a thing as practicing too much?

Dr. Chun: Uh, yes, I, I do think that there is such a thing as practicing too much. The mind is almost like a muscle and it doesn’t 

have infinite energy. You know, people can only stay focused for a certain amount of time and a certain number of hours per day. You know, again, some people can focus for longer than others, but still any person will have limitations. So pushing someone beyond those limitations will just lead to very inefficient study and will cause people to be less motivated, especially if someone’s pushing others to the extent that it intrudes on their ability to get a good night’s sleep or have good break or have social time. That is all, in the long run, detrimental.

Dr. Stieg: So in this day and age where we have pass fail so that nobody feels the stress and anxiety of life and instead of winning a trophy that says champion on it, it says “performer”, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and saying that if anybody does 10,000 repetitions of something, they’re going to be good at it. Can everybody learn and can everybody be a star or you know, are there true cognitive differences between individuals?

Dr. Chun: I believe that there are differences between individuals that will result in different effects of the same amount of practice and training. So if everyone puts in the same 10,000 hours into it, there’s going to be big variability on who benefits the most from that amount of training. I also believe that there are some limits in what one can achieve through training alone. I do believe there is a role for talent and other special circumstances for an individual. Certainly training will allow anyone to be good, you know, somewhat good at any skill. But if we’re talking about elite performance in music or in sport or even in science and such, I do think that there are individual differences and what one can ultimately achieve. The final thing I’ll say about this is that, as an educator, what I think is important is for people to find basically what they’re passionate about and what they’re good at. I think a large part of a liberal arts education is discovering those things.

Dr. Stieg: So we use the word talent, who’s the judge of what is talented and what is not?

Dr. Chun: I think society is. I think the domain is. So obviously in basketball there’s a definition of talent or certainly success. There’s a different definition for how well one can play the violin. And certainly in school there’s a definition for how well one does in physics or another social definition of who’s a good writer and who’s not. If you can publish them in The New Yorker, you’re a good writer. And if not, and most people cannot achieve that level of writing. So, I do think it’s just dependent on the domain.

Dr. Stieg: Imaging studies that would suggest that there are neural networks, neural connectivity that you can image — and based on those images you can predict whether someone will have a good or a poor performance.

Dr. Chun: Yes. One of the exciting areas of brain imaging research right now is the use of it to try to predict a person’s future performance. Basically trying to measure their aptitude for doing a particular task. It is not well developed yet. Not accurate, but maybe someday it will be accurate enough to use in a way that may make it more useful than let’s say, paper IQ test, or GRE test, or SAP tests and things like that.

Dr. Stieg: So you’ve whetted my appetite a little bit. Being a neurosurgeon, I’d like to know this: Are there specific regions in the brain where this is located so I can try to avoid it surgically?

Dr. Chun: Ah, that’s a good question. It turns out that, for most cognitive things that we can measure and try to predict with brain imaging, they tend to be massively distributed across multiple brain areas and in fact the ability to predict these different skills such as attention, or such as intelligence, is really based on what we call whole brain connectivity. So it doesn’t seem to be localized to any specific brain areas.

Dr. Stieg: Saturday afternoon, we’re watching the TV and you know, you’ve got the University of Alabama against LSU and you see the football players jumping up and down the coach in the middle of them firing them all up. Is it true that you will perform better if you’re energized? Like when Vince Lombardi told the Packers a stupid joke before the Ice Bowl and everybody just calmed down and they focused… What’s the best way?

Dr. Chun: Uh, the best way is — there’s an optimal level of arousal, excitement being fired up and basically it’s somewhere in the middle. If you’re too fired up, if you’re overeager, then it actually tends to hurt performance. But of course if you’re too calm or undermotivated than that is not good for performance as well. And I think what good coaches do is they are able to gauge where their team is on that arousal scale and if they feel they need some arousals, they will fire them up. If they feel they’re over anxious and over aroused, they’ll try to calm them down. And I think that’s exactly what a good coach does is that they bring them to the optimal level.

Dr. Stieg: I understand that there’s a law, what is it, the Yerkes-Dodson law that talks about this a little bit? Can you expound on that?

Dr. Chun: Yerkes-Dodson Law is basically the way you think about it is it’s an upside down “U” where on the left and on the right of that upside down “U” is low arousal or high arousal. That’s where performance is low and the top of the upside down U is where performance is optimal and that tends to be somewhere between the low and high extremes.

Dr. Stieg: Can you give us some tips? How can we improve our attention and thereby improve our performance in whatever task we deem important in our lives?

Dr. Chun: The tips that I just tried to give to myself or to students I have in class one is don’t try to do multiple things at the same time. Do things one at a time. Sequentially especially with regards to email or social media. My advice is to check those maybe once an hour or once every half hour as opposed to once every five minutes and I like to turn off all these alerts. That’s one piece of advice. The second piece of advice I like to give is to make sure you get a good night’s sleep. You know, nothing is worth compromising a good night’s sleep. And that has big effects on one’s performance. Uh, your ability to focus in your ability to perform well. And third is just manage your stress and expectations. You know, if you feel yourself under motivated, then you know, try to get yourself excited about something. If you feel yourself anxious or stressed out, kind of think about whatever you can to calm yourself down because there is an optimal level between those two extremes.

Dr. Stieg: So before you start any task, take that deep breath and try to get into what you consider the zone for yourself.

Dr. Chun:  Exactly.

Dr. Stieg: Marvin, I want to thank you so much for taking this time to talk to us about attention and how attention is going to improve our memory and also performance in working, but also in day to day life. I can understand why you’re so popular at Yale and I am hopeful that we can get you down here to Cornell and give some lectures on this topic.

Dr. Chun: Oh, I would love to do so. Thank you.

Dr. Stieg: Thank you so much. Marvin.