How to Rebuild an Attention Span
Let’s start with the twist: A specially-designed video game helped reverse signs of aging in the brains of players in their 60s and 70s. So, even though competing claims on our attention, including from all those devices that bleep and burp and screech, often swamp our ability to focus, evidence from a major study to be published tomorrow indicates that training on a video game dubbed improved not only the ability to stay on task but also shored up short-term memory in aging adults. You may have to read the latter half of that last sentence over again if your email flashed in the background while you skimmed, texts pinged through to your cell phone while you absorbed this new information, and the television erupted with the sound of shelling in Syria while you wondered if you should read on. These are among the wages of rapid-fire disruptions that frequently hobble cognitive functioning in so-called “normal aging.”
Decline in our ability to filter out distraction and focus attention, unfortunately, begins not in middle age but rather in our 20s. Ongoing research on memory over the past five years in the laboratory of Dr. Adam Gazzaley at the University of California-San Francisco identified underlying neural mechanisms that characterize this process of decline. The connections between paying attention, filtering out interference, and remembering are critical because it’s obviously far more difficult to retrieve something never properly imprinted in the first place. Here’s one of the ways we get derailed: Even that casual mention of unfolding catastrophe in Syria in the last paragraph may set off a distracting internal dialogue as other manifestations of external distraction tugged on your attention. In that case, it may be hard to accept the idea that relatively use of an immersive, even fun, video game will help in the war on disruption. Stick with me, here. Maybe you could turn down the volume on a couple of the competing channels? A little more focus, please.