Candy Crush and the neuroscience of multitasking

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An MP has recently had to apologise for playing Candy Crush during a committee meeting.

Is this fair? Would playing a popular mobile game have seriously impaired his ability to pay attention to a presumably important meeting? Well, that’s debatable.

The MP in question, Nigel Mills, is a man (as usual). The common cliche is that men can’t “multitask”, but women can. This is actually just a stereotype with little scientific evidence to support it. In general, men and women are equally bad at multitasking.

You will often hear scare stories about the internet and technology ruining our attention spans, but the actual fact is that human attention was fairly limited before smartphones came along. Studies suggest that the typical human can only keep four “things” in their head at once, such is the small capacity of our short-term memory, and that as soon as our attention is diverted we promptly lose these things. Anyone who has gone into a room then promptly forgotten why they went in there will be familiar with this phenomenon.

Our attention capacity is also  quite limited. We can only focus on a very small part of our visual field at a time, and we can only focus on one conversation if exposed to two simultaneously. The other senses are trickier: how do you “focus” taste? Overall, humans are only consciously aware of a small fraction of the sensory information we take in; the brain fills in the gaps.

But that’s not to say we don’t, or shouldn’t, divide our attention. Multitasking implies doing several things simultaneously, but in fact humans are adept at quickly shifting attention from one thing to another and back again. So you can write an email or drive a car while holding a conversation, for example.

Our subconscious minds are seemingly constantly monitoring for anything important or novel that may be useful to us – an obvious evolutionary survival tactic. This is why repetitive, monotonous things are really hard to stay focused on – such as a long and uninteresting meeting or seminar you were forced to attend.

However, if something of interest occurs, our attention is suddenly directed to it. So when you’ve totally zoned out of a dull meeting and your boss says your name, you’re suddenly very alert, especially if your name was said alongside words like “responsible for” or “update from”.

Overall, it’s possible that smartphones and the like provide more things for us to pay attention to, but in cases such as Nigel Mills playing Candy Crush, it’s likely that anything important would have registered. And truth be told, if he considered the meeting so dull that playing puzzle games seemed more important, he would probably have been paying just as much attention without his tablet to hand.

Powered by article was written by Dean Burnett, for The Guardian on Monday 8th December 2014 18.10 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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