Does working crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and playing other games help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia? Why does time seem to crawl when we’re young and speed up as we age? Does multitasking really help us get more done? We talk to a psychologist and author about these popular ideas and get the real story about how our minds can sometimes trick us into thinking things that really aren’t true.
Bob Duke, professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and an expert on music and human learning. He and his co-author, Art Markman, are also the co-hosts of the popular podcast “Two Guys on Your Head.” Their book is titled Brain Briefs: Answers to the most (and least) pressing questions about your mind
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Brain Briefs: Mythbusting what we think about the brain
Marty Peterson: The brain is an awesome organ and probably the one that we know the least about, though there are plenty of myths in the media about how it works. Our guest, Bob Duke, is a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and an expert on music and human learning. He and his co-author, Art Markman, are also the co-hosts of the popular podcast “Two Guys on Your Head.” They’ve written a book titled Brain Briefs: Answers to the most (and least) pressing questions about your mind, to try and explain how the brain works and to dispel some of the popular myths surrounding how we think and learn. First, how do the stories about the brain that are so popular in the press and in society even get started? Duke says that, ironically, our brains have a lot to do with it.
Bob Duke: A lot of it has to do with our wanting to find stories that explain things that we don’t immediately understand. And when we come up with stories that are plausible sounding we often just stay with that, regardless of any evidence that might come our way after coming up with the story. And, you know, there are a lot of things that we do as human beings that seem to us to be very understandable when, in fact, what’s operating is sort of underneath our conscious awareness in a way that doesn’t allow us to refine and update the explanations that we initially come up with.
Peterson: One of the big issues concerning the brain today is fighting off memory loss and dementia by playing certain kinds of games, or working crossword puzzles – “brain games.” How do these work? Or do they?
Duke: The short answer is no. There are a number of reasons for that. I mean it certainly is true that becoming or remaining mentally active is advantageous for brain health over the course of a life span. The problem with brain games in particular is that what they mostly teach us to do is play brain games. When you look at all of the data that brain games provide you, and many do this, they show you how you compare to what you did last week, and how you compare to national norms and those kinds of things. But what isn’t available is whether this is really doing anything to help you function outside the context of the game. And one of the things that Art and I talk about that is very advantageous about human beings learning new things is when you learn new things in context that involve interacting with other human beings, with other people and you get the social aspect of that as well, now you’re advantaging yourself in a way that working with a technological device just doesn’t provide.
Peterson: As kids, we thought that time just crawled by. It was eons until Christmas or your next birthday or vacation – it seemed like the day would never arrive! As soon as you hit adulthood, though, the days, weeks and years just fly by. Why is that? Is the brain playing some cruel joke on us? Duke says that it’s about what the brain pays attention to. We do many things during the day that are routine, and we don’t need to dissect them in any great detail.
Duke: And of course the older we get, the more things we’ve repeated over time and the fewer new things there are that we encounter and so there are fewer things for us to pay attention to. So if you think about all the experiences that we have in a given day, most of them are entirely forgotten and there’s a good reason for that, because there would be no advantage to our remembering the details of all those things. So the question then becomes, “What do our brains tend to remember? I mean what do they particularly pay attention to and form memories about?” Well, it’s things that are new, things that are surprising, things that are unusual.
Peterson: As adults we don’t have that many new experiences, so the old routine ones just zip by, making time fly. For a child, though, the new experiences need to be pondered over, learned and practiced.
Duke: If you just think about it in terms of the proportion of time too. You know a year for a 70 year old is 1/70th of a lifespan. You know a year for a five year old is 20% of a life span. So it’s a really different proportionality in terms of thinking about the kinds of experiences and the numbers of experiences that we encounter.
Peterson: Brainstorming is an activity that many people engage in at work, and it’s been touted as one of the best ways to bring creative ideas to the surface. But is it? How effective is getting a group of people around a conference table and throwing ideas around?
Duke: What happens in fact, though, and anybody who thinks about this for a few moments in the abstract realizes that different people in a room together have different levels of sway over other people’s thinking. I mean some of us talk more loudly or speak more assertively or whatever the thing happens to be, that leads other people to think that our ideas might be better, not because of the quality of the ideas, but because of the way the ideas are presented. So one of the things a lot of research has taught us is that if we want people to think effectively and come up with a lot of ideas, the place to start is giving people time to come up with ideas on their own. And then once they’ve formulated some ideas, they have some things that they think might be plausible, might even be good, then to bring them together with other people who’ve also come up with ideas, and now there’s an opportunity to have a discussion when there are a number of ideas that already on the table. We, as human beings, like to accomplish goals. If somebody comes up with an idea that seems pretty good, I mean it would be natural for many of us to say, “Okay, we’re done. We’re ready to go now.” You know when, in fact, there may be other ideas even better than the initial idea that never get a chance to present themselves.
Peterson: Multitasking as a way to get more done is another activity that Duke says is overrated. Can you really do more than one thing at a time and expect everything to be finished well?
Duke: We can only devote attention to one thing at a time. And there’s a thing called “response costs” that when you flip from one point of attention to another, the time it takes to reorient to the thing you flipped to and back to the thing you flipped away from, all of that time – that switching cost – actually costs you in terms of efficiency. I think one of the nice things that we sort of finish the chapter on multitasking about is it ends with a little saying that, “Multitasking is doing less by doing more.”
Peterson: Finally, why is it that we are so enamored of cute cat videos? Everyone looks at them online and it seems like a huge waste of time, but we can’t stop ourselves. What is it about these time wasters that’s so engaging?
Duke: All organisms, especially mammals, that are young in their infancy have certain features that we find attractive, that we find cute. Their heads seem large relative to their body, their eyes seem relatively prominent relative to the size of their head, and the rest of the features on their face seem relatively small. Now, there is an evolutionarily determined attraction to that kind of thing. So when we see little babies there are features of babies that we find attractive. And when we see small, sort of baby animals, we are responding to many of the same things. So that cuteness is something that somebody didn’t have to teach us. That’s actually an inherent aspect of what we’re attracted to. Now, when you compound the fact that many times when kittens are doing things, they’re doing things that are funny to look at because they fall over or they’re in some task that we wouldn’t expect a kitten to be doing or their in some place where we wouldn’t expect them to be, that sort of heightens the cuteness of that.
Peterson: Duke adds that bosses shouldn’t feel bad that an employee is getting a little jolt of cuteness and fun, because it will probably make them work better for the rest of the day. You can read more about the little quirks of our brains, bust some myths about behavior and just have a good time reading Bob Duke’s and Art Markman’s book, Brain Briefs available now. They also invite you to visit their website at TwoGuysonYour Head.org and catch their podcast on KUT.org. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.