Our minds are battlegrounds where different media fight for attention. Through the Internet, desktops, mobile screens, TVs and more, we are constantly awash with headlines, links, images, icons, videos, animations and sound. This is the way of the 21st century – a saturated sensory environment where multi-tasking is the name of the game. Even as I type these words, my 24-inch monitor displays a Word document and a PDF side-by-side, while my headphones pump Lux Aeterna into my head (see image below).
You might think that this influx of media would make the heaviest of users better at processing competing streams of information. But Eyal Ophir from Stanford University thinks otherwise. From a group of 262 students, Ophir indentified two sets of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ multimedia multi-taskers from the extreme ends of the group. The heavy users were more likely to spend more time reading, watching TV, surfing the web, sending emails or text messages, listening to music and more, and more likely to do these at the same time.
The heavy group also fared worse at tasks designed to test their ability to filter out irrelevant information or, surprisingly, to switch from one task to another. In short, they show poorer “cognitive control“, a loosely grouped set of abilities that include allocating attention and blocking out irrelevancy in the face of larger goals. They’re more easily distracted by their many incoming streams of data, or less good at shining the spotlight of their attention on a single goal, even though they are similar to the light group in terms of general intelligence, performance on creativity tests, basic personality types, and proportion of women to men.
While the world’s media (*cough*Susan Greenfield*cough*) will probably showcase this work as a sign of the mental deficits facing the Twitter generation, Ophir is more measured. For a start, his study wasn’t just focusd on the online world, but on more traditional forms of media like books, radio and television. “It’s probably good to think of this not as an advantage or disadvantage, but rather as a difference in orientation,” he told me. “Light media multitaskers are more in control of their own attention and what information enters their minds, while heavy media multitaskers are more responsive to their environments, and more easily swayed by stimuli that are not pertinent to their current task.”
Whether that’s a problem or not depends very much on the situation. Being easily distracted might not be conducive to the task of knocking out a blog post, but in situations like driving a car, it can be an advantage to have your attention suddenly grabbed by something unexpected, like something on the road.
Learning a new language as an adult is no easy task but infants can readily learn two languages without obvious difficulties. Despite being faced with two different vocabularies and sets of grammar, babies pick up both languages at the same speeds as those who learn just one. Far from becoming confused, it seems that babies actually develop superior mental skills from being raised in a bilingual environment.
By testing 38 infants, each just seven months old, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler have found that those who are raised in bilingual households have better “executive functions“. This loose term includes a number of higher mental abilities that allow us to control more basic ones, like attention and motor skills, in order to achieve a goal. They help us to plan for the future, focus our attention, and block out instinctive behaviours that would get in the way. Think of them as a form of mental control.
The role of these abilities in learning multiple languages is obvious – they allow us to focus on one language, while preventing the other from interfering. Indeed, children and adults who learn to use two languages tend to develop better executive functions. Now, Kovacs and Mehler have found that even from a very young age, before they can actually speak, children develop stronger executive functions if they grow up to the sound of two mother tongues. They show a degree of mental control that most people their age would struggle to match.
Kovacs and Mehler worked with 14 babies who heard two languages from birth, and 14 who had experienced just one. The babies saw a computer screen with two white squares and heard a short, made-up word. After that, a puppet appeared in one of the squares. There were nine words in total, and each time the puppet appeared in the same place. As the test went on, all the babies started focusing on the correct square more frequently, showing that they had learned to anticipate the puppet’s appearance. That’s a simple task that doesn’t require much in the way of executive function.
The next nine trials used a different puppet that appeared in the other square. The infants’ job was to learn that the link between word and puppet had changed, but only the bilingual ones were good at this. Unlike their monolingual peers, they learned to switch their attention to the other square. To Kovacs and Mehler, this is a sign of superior mental control – they had to override what they had previously learned in order to pick up something new. The monolingual infants, however, behaved as babies their age usually do – they stick with responses that had previously paid off, even if situations change.