Your average American middle schooler — doing homework while intermittently texting friends while listening to music — believes she is efficiently attending to many things at once. She is not, of course. She is actually switching among tasks, and the frequent switching prevents any sustained focus on a single task.
Writing about how humans pay attention to stimuli, John Medina (Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School) summarizes all the recent research that proves we are unable to multitask. Practice can help us switch more rapidly among separate tasks, and aging can reduce our speed at making such switches in attention, but our brains are not actually doing several things simultaneously.
Today’s young people are used to lots of stimuli. Many parents and teachers would note that they also seem less able to concentrate on anything for very long. The question is: which is cause and which effect? Has their habit of trying to attend to several things at once made them, over time, more easily distractible?
Every brain is unique, as neural connections or synapses are being made and pruned all the time. What we habitually do affects the physical structure of our brains. Practice wears neural "pathways" through repetition, allowing us to drive or to play an instrument or to make a jump shot without the complete attention required by someone just learning these things. Similarly, we lose, with disuse, the ability to hear (and therefore to say) sounds that are not part of our native language. The structure and, therefore, the functioning of our brains is affected by our environment, whether through exposure to toxins or to the subtle hormonal differences between men and women.
But the sum of our experiences inevitably determines how we learn and perform complex tasks most efficiently and effectively. And that sweet spot will differ for each person — and for a single person over time, as accumulated experience continues to change our brains.
As a child in a chaotic household (a four-bedroom house with parents, a grandparent, and nine children), I learned to tune out distractions. I recall even having difficulty doing my homework on an occasion when I found myself alone in a quiet house. Years later, while editing densely written scientific manuscripts, I found I could more easily get into and stay in “the zone” if I played certain kinds of music (with the right tempo and no lyrics). It was as if the music kept the unneeded right half of my brain occupied, freeing the left side to deal with barely understood physics and arcane editing standards. I had learned what I needed to do to sustain focus.
I worry that our children are not learning these things about themselves. And I worry about whether many of them are even capable of giving anything the sustained attention required to learn or to do something complex.