Holidays seem to be times when multi-tasking is the order of the day — preparing holiday meals while keeping a mental list of what I need to get at the store later, trying to listen to my daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law-to-be’s conversation and track my son’s exchanges on the meaning of life in the next room, all while planning a blog and periodically checking email. This is the time of year when we tend to push the limits of our ability to focus attention and keep track of lots of things. Fortunately, according to researchers at McGill University, we have some pretty significant capacity for splitting our attention.
This new research suggests that we can, at least to some degree, pay attention to more than one object simultaneously, as if we had two spotlights, rather than just one to focus our attention. That’s exciting news for those of us who keep multi-tasking, of necessity or otherwise, even when we’ve been told how limited our abilities to focus and screen out distractions are. But there are limits, too. The researchers found that our ability to pay attention to two different things depends on how different they are from the distractors that might interfere.
Of course, it also helps if some of the “tasking” going on is at the automatic level. Tasks that are encoded in procedural memory can go on without conscious thought, leaving more room for our conscious efforts to pay attention to the important things going on around us (did I actually hear my daughters-in-law, current and to-be, talking about babies?). The new research also suggests that training our visual and auditory discrimination skills could make multi-tasking more efficient.
The holidays aren’t over yet, so it looks like we’ll all have more time to experiment with the implications of this new research … Let me know how it goes … once you have time to focus.