April 11, 2011
Old Brains Do Poorer Job Processing Interrupts

UCSF researchers find that when looking at brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) older brains interrupted from a task do a poorer job of resuming where they left off.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have pinpointed a reason older adults have a harder time multitasking than younger adults: they have more difficulty switching between tasks at the level of brain networks.

Juggling multiple tasks requires short-term, or "working," memory the capacity to hold and manipulate information in the mind for a period of time. Working memory is the basis of all mental operations, from learning a friend's telephone number, and then entering it into a smart phone, to following the train of a conversation, to conducting complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning.

"Our findings suggest that the negative impact of multitasking on working memory is not necessarily a memory problem, per se, but the result of an interaction between attention and memory, said the senior author of the study, Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center.

Basically, after processing an interrupt and resuming an interrupted task older brains show they did a poorer job of restoring context. In software terms, their stack gets corrupted.

When the young and older adults were interrupted, their brains disengaged from a memory maintenance network and reallocated neural resources toward processing the interruption. However, the younger adults re-established connection with the memory maintenance network following the interruption and disengaged from the interrupting image. The older adults, on the other hand, failed both to disengage from the interruption and to reestablish the neural network associated with the disrupted memory.

This has obvious implications for workplaces: cut back on unnecessary interrupts. But this advice doesn't just apply to older workers. Everyone takes a hit from interrupts, the extent of the cost is just a matter of degree. The cost has been documented for software developers in DeMarco and Lister's book PeopleWare. Unfortunately, the book has not had much of an impact on management thinking.

If you can see an interrupt coming then it would make sense to jot down some thoughts about what you are thinking about at that moment. Such jottings could help you restore state more quickly once the interrupt is over. Or just maintain a more detailed list of what you are trying to accomplish in a given day. One needs the ability to isolate oneself to think thru bigger thoughts.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 April 11 11:12 PM  Brain Aging

MarkyMark said at April 12, 2011 1:05 AM:

Although this is all completely anecdotal, i'm in my late 30s and I have this nagging feeling when at work doing things that my short term memory isn't nearly as good as it was in my 20s. I work in a legal field and am sure that I used to be able to memorise large chunks of enactments whereas now I tend to forget a section almost as soon as I read it. Despite all this though I think that experience both life and workwise makes one far far more effective as one ages notwithstanding the decline in memory. There's no point in being able to put a whole lot of stuff in your short term memory if you don't know how to put it into perspective or how others will react to it.

BernardZ said at April 12, 2011 4:11 AM:

My experience is exactly the same as MarkyMark.

Anonymous said at April 14, 2011 11:57 AM:

Wait until you whippersnappers hit 60. Always remember, it's OK to forget where the keys are just don't forget what they're for.

Barry D said at April 14, 2011 12:01 PM:

I wonder if the experience described by MarkyMark and BernardZ has more to do with information overload.

Personally, I find that I remember things quite well, perhaps better than ever, if I care, but as I've grown older, I've become more selective.

Josh Blackman said at April 14, 2011 12:17 PM:

Other research suggests that teens handling so much data at once strengthens certain synapses that permits them to multitask so well. http://joshblackman.com/blog/?p=6588

Nick G said at April 14, 2011 12:55 PM:

Josh - how do you know young people are actually multi-tasking well? I'd like to see actual quantitative analysis that suggests that they're doing it as well as they think.

Performance can be hard to self-evaluate: young people do much, much worse on tests of driving while distracted than they expect.

Young people on cell phones drive like someone who's very, very drunk, but they don't realize it until they get in an accident (or someone puts orange cones in a parking lot and tests them).

Lee Reynolds said at April 14, 2011 1:37 PM:

According to research done in the last year or so, it seems that younger people don't multitask nearly as well as they think they do.

None of us do for that matter, regardless of age.

I don't have a reference to this research on hand, but it shouldn't be hard to find since it made the rounds through the news.

PTL said at April 15, 2011 9:14 AM:

Multi-tasking is the method of doing many things at once and not well. When you concentrate on one task you will complete it sooner and better.
Successful people do one well, finish it and move on.

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