STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many people listen to NPR while multitasking. People listen while driving, cooking, watching kids, taking a shower. But multitasking is another word for being distracted, so do yourself a favor and focus. NPR's Shankar Vedantam came across a solution to distractions.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: This...
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VEDANTAM: ...Is the sound of science.
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VEDANTAM: At least, it's what science sounds like at one lab at George Mason University. I'm playing a game called "Warship Commander." Little planes of different colors glide toward my ship at the bottom of the screen. The game looks simple, but as Melissa Scheldrup explains...
MELISSA SCHELDRUP: So if it's yellow, what you'll need to do is...
VEDANTAM: There are lots of rules.
SCHELDRUP: Red, fire on right away.
He's blue. He's good. Let him go.
Airplane or aircraft are going to come in, and click them and the IFF button.
VEDANTAM: Scheldrup is a Ph.D. student at George Mason's human factors and applied cognition lab.
SCHELDRUP: And then it will tell you here in the communications window if it's a friend or a foe.
VEDANTAM: I'm not exactly a natural.
I think it's 030, I think.
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VEDANTAM: Oh, no. I guess not.
This lab has volunteers play video games to understand how interruptions affect our minds. The game forces the player to pay attention to two things at the same time. While I'm busy shooting enemy aircraft and making sure that friendly planes get through unscathed, I also have to listen to updates about my warship.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As game character) Communication channel is now Oscar.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As game character) Now on course 090.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As game character) Communication channel is now alpha.
VEDANTAM: To follow the game's rules while also keeping track of all the updates, I have to hold a lot of things in my head at once. The number of things you can keep track of at any one time is shaped by something called your working memory. Scheldrup says having a good working memory is key to bouncing back from an interruption.
SCHELDRUP: People who are generally good at that have less of a negative effect of interruptions. And people who are not so good at it seem to be affected more.
VEDANTAM: Scheldrup and her colleagues wanted to know how people could boost their working memory capacity. They decided to try some brain stimulation - specifically, run a little electrical current through the part of the brain that handles working memory, the prefrontal cortex.
SCHELDRUP: Very simplistically, it's like a 9-volt battery that we have electrodes attached to, and depending on where you put the electrodes on the brain, you can either make it more difficult for neurons to fire or make it more easy for them to fire.
VEDANTAM: Scientists have inserted electrodes in people's brains for decades. These devices can help patients with serious disorders like Parkinson's disease. What Scheldrup's lab does and what I've signed up for is much less invasive - electrodes attached to the side of my head.
It's a little disconcerting when people bring out sterile alcohol prep pads before a psychology experiment, but all right.
SCHELDRUP: Yeah, yeah. Don't be nervous.
VEDANTAM: I'm not nervous.
SCHELDRUP: Like I said, don't be nervous. It's fine.
VEDANTAM: Not nervous, not nervous, not nervous.
SCHELDRUP: It's all great.
VEDANTAM: All great. I will live.
SCHELDRUP: All right, how's that one feel? Too tight?
VEDANTAM: Nope, feels good.
VEDANTAM: Now, this might be useful in boosting my brain, but they don't do very much in the fashion department.
SCHELDRUP: You kind of look like a World War I patient that got hit in the head and has a white band around your forehead.
VEDANTAM: Melissa turns on the electrodes.
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VEDANTAM: I'm feeling a very, very mild tingling.
And I play the game again.
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SCHELDRUP: So you got six out of six that time. You got them all right.
VEDANTAM: All right.
Scheldrup can't say for sure whether I improved because of the electrodes. Maybe I just got better with practice. But when she analyzes the results from many volunteers in her study and controls for the effects of practice, she finds the electrodes do help. Now, Scheldrup admits that running electricity through your head isn't the most practical, everyday solution to interruptions, but...
SCHELDRUP: It informs other techniques. So if we know that modulating working memory performance or working memory ability affects these things, then we can say, what techniques can maybe supplement your working memory?
VEDANTAM: For instance, if we know that boosting working memory makes us better at handling distractions, scientists can then try to figure out what new techniques might improve working memory. A few miles from this lab, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport thinks we need fewer technological solutions to the problem of distractibility. Newport's taking a cue from influential writers and thinkers like J.K. Rowling and the psychiatrist Carl Jung.
CAL NEWPORT: They all seem to have this drive to, on a regular basis, cut themselves off from their lives of business, and communication and distraction and isolate themselves to think deeply.
VEDANTAM: Take Mark Twain. He had a cabin on the property of his house where he would retreat for solitude.
NEWPORT: It was so far from the house that his family had to blow a horn to try to catch his attention and let him know that dinner was ready.
VEDANTAM: Newport's come up with a name for this practice of thinking deeply without distraction - deep work. The opposite of deep work is, no surprise, shallow work - sending emails, answering calls - the kind of tasks that often dominate office jobs. Newport says the problem is worse than we admit.
NEWPORT: Even when people think that they're single-tasking, what they're still doing is every five or 10 minutes a just-check. Let me just do a just-check to my inbox. But even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance.
VEDANTAM: In his book, "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World," Newport describes his work habits.
NEWPORT: I work during very set hours during the day, and I plan out the day like a chess player moving the pieces around. I don't let my mood dictate how my day unfolds. And then three, I've made myself very comfortable with annoying people. I'm bad at email. I have just set the expectations that I'm just not available a lot. I'm not someone that you can expect a quick answer from, and that also causes some trouble, of course. But all of this adds up to allowing me to regularly have long portions of many of my days focused on deeper thinking.
VEDANTAM: No social media, limited email, strict limits on appointments - if all this structure and planning sounds like a way to turn yourself into an automaton, Newport turns this thinking on its head.
NEWPORT: So to have a structured day, for example, to protect your mind from distraction, I actually think makes you more human and less robotic than what most people do, which is to sit there like a human network router and just sort of process messages and tasks all day like a blind computer processor.
VEDANTAM: So there you have the options - retreat to a quiet cabin in the woods or get your head zapped with electricity. Personally, I'd prefer the cabin, but I don't have one.
Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: Whenever he can focus, Shankar is host of the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.