I would describe myself as dubious with regard to efforts to “explain reality” on the basis of neuroscience research.
That said, I do read accounts of potential applications of the “latest neuroscience research.”
By way of example, the concept that a person needs to “reset” one’s brain from time to time – for example, by avoiding dealing with work emails while on vacation – appeals to me strongly.
A thought has occurred to me as my mind was wandering during the writing of this post. The thought is that the voice that I adopt as a blogger is the voice that I developed as a writer when I was in high school, and which I refined in freelance work in the years that followed:
It was in five years of freelance writing that I really learned how to write. Eventually, I became a public school teacher, because freelance writing paid little, whereas with a teaching job, you knew you had a steady income and could write as much as you liked.
The writing requirement of teaching was a part of the job that I much enjoyed, along with the organizing of role plays and dramas by elementary students, which was always a great source of entertainment for everybody.
On many days, I would remark to myself, “Live drama is the best form of entertainment; it’s a treat to have a job where I get paid to watch life drama.” Everybody enjoyed the fact I used drama in my classes – even the parents, of many of my students, remarked how much their children enjoyed taking part in role plays.
Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise
With regard to how the brain works, a recent overview of neuroscience research, in an Aug. 9 New York Times article by Daniel J. Levitin entitled “Hit the reset button in your brain,” has had practical applications in determining how I go about my work.
Daniel Levitin is the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and the author of The Organized Mind: Straight Thinking in the Age of Information Overload (2014). At the time of this writing, the book has 71 holds at the Toronto Public Library website.
Levitin’s previous books include, among others, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession (2006).
CBC Radio Metro Morning
I learned about the article from a CBC Radio Metro Morning broadcast. The broadcast spoke of the drawbacks of checking your work emails while you’re on vacation.
After reading the article, I have adopted a policy of doing my online social networking and email during a designated time, rather than all through the day. In my case, I now reserve the mornings and evenings for email and social media. The rest of the day I attend to other things.
There’s much to be said for online communications, with benefits that are evident in the analog, non-digital realms available to us. It’s also a great idea to spend plenty of time in the non-digital side of everyday life.
I had read previously about research regarding the deleterious influence of multitasking on attending to the completion of a given task, but the information did not do very much to alter my behaviour. The “reset your brain” article in the New York Times has caused me to change my behaviour.
Reset you brain
Daniel Levitin notes, in his article, that our brains, as a consequence of how the brain’s “attentional system” has evolved, have two dominant “modes of attention.”
The first component of the attentional system is described as the “task-positive network,” which is active when a person is actively engaged in a task. It’s at work when you’re focused on the task at hand, and are free of distractions and interruptions. Neuroscientists speak of this component as the “central executive.” In the absence of distractions, we get things done; we stick to the task at hand.
The “task-negative network,” as the article explains, is active when a person’s mind is “wandering.” It’s the mode that’s activated when we daydream – and it’s associated with a person’s moments of creativity and insight.
The two components are called “networks” because they are comprised of distributed networks of neurons, which are described as being comparable to electric circuits in the brain. According to Levitin, the two above-mentioned networks operate like a seesaw; when one is active the other is not.
A third component of the attentional system, according to Levitin’s overview, is the “attentional filter.” This component helps us to orient our attention. It helps us to know what to pay attention to, and what can be ignored.
During evolution of the human species, this component would have come in handy in the face of predators and other dangerous situations.
As it happens, the constant flow of information from social media and digital messages similarly engages the attentional filter, “and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long.”
The author characterizes this constant engagement as “the curse of the information age.”
Switching is easier for some than others
Research indicates that the switch that enables us to move back and forth between daydreaming and attention is located an inch below the surface of the top of a person’s skull, in a part of the brain called the insula – described in the article as the “attentional switch.”
In some of us, as I understand, the switch works smoothly; in others it does not work so well. Whether the switch is smooth or clunky, if we’re called upon to switch too many times, we get tired and (a bit) dizzy.
The bottom line is that every digital communication that a person deals with is competing with brain resources. Important things in life – decisions we need to make, tasks we need to complete – are competing for brain resources with social media and text and email messages.
Preventable medical error is third leading cause of death in the United States
The author emphasizes that both the task-positive network and the task-negative network have a role to play in addressing the problems that the world faces.
We can say, according to Levitin, that “problem solving might take some time and doesn’t always have to be accomplished immediately.”
This idea, which he describes as radical, “could have profound effects on decision making and even on our economy. Consider this: By some estimates, preventable medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United Sates, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. You want your diagnostician to give the right answer, not always the quickest one. Zoning out is not always bad.”
The article concludes:
- Taking breaks is biologically restorative. Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations – true vacations without work – and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.
[End of excerpt]
Effects of multitasking
An Oct. 2, 2014 Inc. article is entitled: “Multitasking Physically Shrinks Your Brain: Study.” The subhead reads: “New research finds that looking at multiple screens at once can actually alter a key brain structure.”