Here is the full transcript of neuroscience researcher Marvin Chun’s TEDx Talk Presentation: What Makes Some Brains More Focused Than Others? at TEDxKFAS conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: What Makes Some Brains More Focused Than Others by Marvin Chun at TEDxKFAS conference
For me, smart living has to start with being productive. How many of you would like to be more productive? If you are a student, you would like to get better grades without having to work harder.
If you have a job, you want to be more productive in your work, you want to gain more recognition for your work, without having to put more hours, because everyone has the same twenty-four hours a day.
And there are many ways to be more productive. But the one way that I’m going to talk about in my session is how you can improve your focus, and how you can improve your attention, and what psychology and neuroscience have to say to improve your focus and attention.
The big challenge that faces all of us, especially in modern society, is that there’s too much information. It’s both a blessing, but also a curse, that we have access to infinite amounts of information. All the knowledge that has been produced by humankind is at the end of your thumbs just by opening up your phone. And again, it’s a huge privilege, and we’re very lucky to be in this kind of era.
But on the other hand, it’s very hard to choose, and it’s very hard to decide where to start, because we are constantly confronted with too much information.
Secondly, we also distract ourselves. It’s hard to focus on our own. One good example is that you commonly see people walking down the street with their eyes glued to their phone. And, of course, they’re somewhat oblivious to their surroundings.
See he’s coming to the door and boom, he just hits the door, walks right into it.
In the next video is a woman walking in a mall checking out her cell phone. And you can see that she fell straight into that fountain.
Okay? So, you know, we distract ourselves all the time, making us oblivious to our surroundings. These are comical examples, but, of course, there are more serious dangerous examples.
For instance, if you’re driving a train — an engineer driving a train, and you lose your focus for even just a few seconds, then if you don’t slow down your speed your train is going to run off the tracks to very dangerous effect.
So these are just a few examples of how we are overloaded with information and how we distract ourselves.
How Can We Improve Our Focus?
And so the question is: How can we improve our focus? We are living in what John Cassidy of “The New Yorker” magazine calls the “attention deficit disorder economy” or the “attention deficit disorder society.” And the consequences of that we’re still trying to understand.
We know that it means that we’re a little less focused, more distracted, we may be more shallow. This overwhelming information may make us less productive. And as I just pointed out over here, it can also lead to dangerous situations.
The economic cost of attention deficit has been estimated to be even up to about $200 billion in the United States alone. These are serious problems that affect our productivity.
So here’s an example. I want to see how well you can attend at the beginning of my talk. This is a video, and your task is to focus on the team with white clothes and ignore the team with black clothes, Okay? They’re going to run around the screen, and your task is to count how many times they’re passing the ball to other players on the screen — other white players, white T-shirt players, on the screen.
Okay, count it quietly in your head, and then at the end I’m going to ask you to yell out the answer. So count how many times the white T-shirt team passes the ball to other players on its team. And it’s important to do this as quietly as possible. Don’t laugh, don’t cough or talk because that’s going to hurt other people’s concentration.
Okay. So here’s our first attention deficit test. Here we go. One, two, three.
[Video clip: “How many passes does the team in white make?”]
Okay, what was the answer? How many times? Thirteen? Thirteen? Excellent, you guys have great attention and that’s really fantastic. We’re off to a good start.
Now some of you may have seen this video because it’s on YouTube, and it’s a pretty well-known one. But if you’ve never seen this video before, please raise your hand up as high as you can. Look around, most of you have not seen the video. Keep your hands up high, please.
Now there was actually something else going on in this video, and you can lower your hands — keep your hands up please — you can lower your hand if you saw a dancing bear. But if you did not see the dancing bear, keep your hands up, look around, you’re not alone. Most of you have missed a very critical part of this video. So now you can lower your hand. You’re not alone. Let’s watch the video again, no counting. Just watch the video now.
Okay so now no counting.
[Video clip: “How many passes does the team in white make?”]
And just watch. As you were monitoring the white T-shirt team, on the right, this guy in a bear suit comes out, and he does this kind of dance. Right? And then moonwalks out. And the good majority of you, the very smart group of people, totally missed this very obvious feature of the video. Okay?
On the one hand that means that your attention is really good, because you did not see something that I didn’t ask you to look for. But on the other hand, it really highlights how limited your ability to see the world, and to experience the world, is. Our brains are limited. And that’s the point I’m trying to make with this video.
In fact, we studied this in my own laboratory at Yale in collaboration with one of my former postdoc students, Yao Daju, who is now a professor at Harvard University. We conducted this study where we asked people to do something very simple: Just look at these shapes shown there on the left.
And we asked them to attend to the shapes, and try to remember them for like two seconds. And sometimes they have to remember one; sometimes they have to remember two; sometimes they have to remember three. Very simple task.
People have no trouble attending to and remembering one of the objects. Okay? And we also measured what their brains are doing while they’re looking at this task and doing this task. And that line on the bottom with the light green shows what happens when people are attending to, and remembering, just one item. The brain doesn’t have to work too hard and people do super well. They’re almost perfect in the task.
But once you increase it to two items or three items, you can see in the darker lines on the graph, your brain has to work harder. And not only does your brain have to work harder, the performance drops. People start making mistakes, even for something this simple.
Basically your brain can handle only one thing at a time. Only one thing well at a time. Yes, you can try to remember two things or three things. You’re capable of doing it, but your productivity, your performance, is going to start to go down.