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Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

The scoop on how we think, feel and act

Surprising Truths about How We Think and Act

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As an editor at Scientific American Mind, I get a sneak peak at a menu of surprises about us—people, that is—that each issue has to offer. As the March/April Mind makes its debut, I wanted to share my favorite brain food from its cognitive kitchen. Here are three not-to-miss messages from its pages. Later this week, I will unveil more of what’s in store for readers.

woman looking expectant

Speed dating offers choice--perhaps more than we need. Courtesy of Steve Bowbrick via Flickr.

Dating: the tyranny of choice. Having more choices does not always bring greater wellbeing—and can lead to less happiness (see “The Tyranny of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz, Scientific American Mind, April 2004). I am often overwhelmed when faced with more than a couple of types of toothpaste, so I cannot imagine enjoying the task of picking a date from a serial lineup. But people who engage in speed dating willingly take this on.

An article in the March/April Mind suggests that although this rapid-fire interview approach may seem like an efficient way to sift potential partners, having lots of choices does not necessarily lead to better dates (see “Science of Speed Dating Helps Singles Find Love,” by Sander van der Linden). For one thing, more options makes us narrow our criteria to avoid cognitive overload: we rely mostly on basic features—age and looks, for example. But making a judgment based on age or height is like trying to predict how food will taste by reading its nutrition label. Knowing that a guy is 5 foot 5 or 6 foot 3 reveals nothing about how he looks at you or how much he makes you laugh. Apparently a frantic two-minute chat just isn’t enough to give you a sense of what really matters.

man juggling knives

Don't try this at home. For the vast majority of us, multitasking may be hazardous to our health. Courtesy of Wootang01 via Flickr.

Multitasking magicians. I love articles on multitasking, because they give me more ammunition for the mantra I repeat to anyone who seems not to know: you can’t multitask; true multitasking is a myth and it’s generally not a smart way to live. If either job is mentally more demanding than chopping carrots, you aren’t multitasking, you are switching back and forth between them. The result is inefficient at best, because the switching takes time. If neither task is time-sensitive, your work will just take more time to complete. But if one of them is, say, driving a car, which requires total concentration at key moments, then talking on the phone during those instants can kill you. And, folks, it’s not about the headset. We are not talking about your hands here, but your brain. Your mental resources are tapped out. Indeed, as a new article in Mind tells us, the crash risk from such behavior is greater than that from being legally drunk (see “Top Multitaskers Help Explain How the Brain Juggles Thoughts,” by David L. Strayer and Jason M. Watson). You can’t get better with practice either. Practice only makes you overconfident, reinforcing your bad behavior. (And, of course, the more you do it, the more chances you have to get hurt.)

These facts may resonate with me because I am so obviously bad at multitasking, and unlike many of you, I dislike it. Juggling jobs makes me anxious. But I have noticed that some people seem a lot calmer, at least, when besieged by multiple duties. I never paid this impression much heed, convinced as I was of the myth of multitasking. But I learned something from the psychologists who penned the article in this issue: a tiny fraction of you—about 2 to 3 percent—can multitask. In experiments, such people can do two tasks at once as well as just one. This ability may even have a genetic basis. Who knew? But for the other 98 percent, I am still perfecting my lecture. (For more information on the science of multitasking, see “The Limits of Multitasking,” by Klaus Manhart, Scientific American Mind, December 2004.)

bullying cartoon

Stopping a bully could save a child from psychosis. Courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr.

Staving off psychosis. My uncle Glenn suffered from schizophrenia, so I paid careful attention to a book excerpt in the issue concerning ways to help kids with the disorder (see “A Mind in Danger,” by Victoria Costello). Glenn had always been a little odd, his brothers told me (see “Seeing Schizophrenia Before It’s Too Late” on Streams of Consciousness), so I was not shocked to learn some of those oddities are now thought to forecast possible psychosis. These include antisocial tendencies, flatter emotions and perhaps also some physical quirks. More surprising to me was that the disorder might be partly preventable if you know what to look for.

I had always thought schizophrenia was pretty much genetically determined. But, in fact, the environment contributes to the disease. No, we are not back to the days of blaming parents. But parents and other adults can help protect vulnerable children. Bullying by peers and smoking pot are now thought to help push such kids into a danger zone, so both are issues that take on heightened concern for a child who shows signs of mental trouble. Both are, of course, stoppable if not easily so. By contrast, making home a happy and stable a place can help lead a child at the edge onto safer mental terrain. In short, parents aren’t to blame if a child develops a serious mental illness, but parenting does matter. Parents do have some control, even if not as much as they would like. And for some kids, the stakes are higher than they are for others. (For more on schizophrenia, also see my earlier post, “Crux of Schizophrenia’s Emotional and Social Deficits May Be Cognitive.”)

For more lessons about the mind from the latest issue of Mind, stay tuned for my next post.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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