Evolutionary biology

News from biology, and its implications for engineering

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poor Focus, or Improved Focus?

The NBC News short features on the brain, "Mind Matters"
just featured a claim by researcher Adam Gazzaley that older people lose focus, because they are not able to "multi-task" or "filter" as well as young people.

Of course, this is only a claim. I'm sure in the lab, there's a lot of heated discussion about this young researcher's announcement and subsequent press. It's such a shame that this discussion will never reach the height of dissemination that the original story achieved. But, that's the nature of modern flashy, cliche-ridden sound-byte media, which makes it increasingly difficult, for people of any age, to find deep discussion amid the chaos.

And that's the problem with the study, or at least the sound-byte about the study we saw on NBC. In our scatter-shot media-dominated lives, older people are learning not to react too quickly to multiple stimuli, because there is rarely a good reason to do so. Instinct is kicking in, insisting upon a holistic focus, in order to keep an eye out for what is truly important.

There were some interesting assumptions in Gazzaley's study: 1) that what a person consciously expressed as important, or told the researcher was important, or was told by the researcher was most important, somehow was the most important thing. Clearly there are more layers of prioritization, including those in the subjects history, which cannot possibly be obscured in a laboratory. 2) That there is a problem with not being an obedient multi-tasker in a work or school environment ... this might be a problem for a boss that wants a robot or pet, but is not a problem for an independent person, or a boss who wants independent, clear-thinking people around.

The problems with the study and its claims go to the very heart of modern hyper-stimulation, and one could reasonably infer that this is yet another example of a scientific study effected by social goals perceived by the research team.