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|