What do Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have to do with attention skills? Or music and divided attention.

Knowing how I like many kinds of music, friends encouraged me to see Be’la Fleck and the Flecktones. I love exposing my daughter Sally to new musical genres. Besides, I always preach that new and novel is good for the brain.  Now was the chance to practice that advice!

At the concert, what we really found interesting was that two of the musicians were able to play two instruments simultaneously, or change instruments very quickly and continue playing. Howard Levy played piano and harmonica at the same time. Futureman, the rhythm section, played both a string instrument of his own creation and the drums in rapid succession or simultaneously.

We talked about what it took to do this. Both musicians are stellar examples of managing divided attention.  They were able to retrieve and attend to one set of stimuli, rapidly transition to another set, then shift back again. They had great processing speed to make these rapid transitions occur.

Often when a person does two things simultaneously, one activity has become automatic and most of the person’s focus is on the task that’s less automatic. An "automatic" task is less demanding on the brain and actually uses less brain real estate. It’s easier for this to happen if the tasks are somewhat different. Many of us are able to stir or chop something in the kitchen while we talk on the telephone.

Tasks become automatic through mental and physical practice. By practicing, we develop memory traces which help us remember how to do the task next time. Paying attention is also important for coordinating and timing multiple tasks.

What are the ramifications for you? For real learning, it’s always best to work on accuracy before improving speed. You want to do the task well before you try to do it faster. Research also shows we should avoid doing two tasks at once if we’d do them better one at a time. Many studies on multitasking from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Dana Organization, and others find that multitasking results in less accuracy and a slower speed of accomplishment overall.

Still, sometimes multitasking can’t be avoided. By improving your ability to handle divided attention, you can enhance your learning in this multimedia and high-stimuli world. At The Brain Trainer, we help clients improve their ability to manage divided attention, boost their processing speed, and allow skills to become automatic. If you’re quickly able to shift attention, you can take in better information more rapidly. And the better the input, the stronger your output becomes.

Kaiser Family Foundation, Program for the Study of Media and Health. "Media Multitasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors and Pairings." Released Dec. 12, 2006. 

http://kff.org/entmedia/7592.cfm (Accessed Aug. 15, 2008)

Patoine, B. (2008) Brain Development In a Hyper-Tech World. Dana Organization

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