Counter-Productive Effects of Multitasking: Running vs. Learning 2
4th Dec 2012Posted in: Blog 2
Counter-Productive Effects of Multitasking: Running vs. Learning 2
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Following my initial post about the ''counter productive effects of multitasking: Running vs. Learning'' which you can read about here:    a number of new observations have been made in the area of an experienced relationship between cardiovascular exercise (jogging) and audio stimulation. After 5 consecutive trials, I have observed support for my initial impression that listening to verbal information such as a technical audiobook can impede the activity of physical exercise while jogging. More specifically, it has been consistently observed that there is a marked decrease in stamina and motivation to run which ultimately leads to a shorter and less productive run overall when i am listening to a technical type of audiobook. My theory at this point is that attending to verbal data such as presented in an audio book can interfere with the experienced process of jogging due to a kind of cognitive resource overload. Thus, both activities can not be maintained simultaneously at optimal levels for any extended period because they conjointly place conflicting or excessive demands on cognitive resources. Basically, listening to an audiobook requires certain mainly left brain parietal, frontal  and neocortical processes while exercise requires the use of  the motor cortices (premotor, primary, secondary and supplementary) and cerebellum. Overstimulation of the brain through multitasking in this particular example leads to one activity being preferred over another. So at a given moment i may be listening attentively to the information but my run seems to suffer from a loss of motor coordination and psychological motivation. At another point, i may be attending more fully to my body, my surroundings and my run but i am losing track of the information streaming through my audiobook. Think about the stroop test for a second, in which the participant is asked to complete one task successfully (identifying the color of the font) while being forced to multitask (reading the word) as in this example: try naming the color of the font without reading the word... Your left brain interferes by reading the word while your right struggles identify the color it perceives.    

It is naturally easier to identify the color here because the left brain is not attending to any word reading task. It still takes longer than just reading the color name (in black font) because your right brain has to identify the color then feed that information to left hemisphere in order to name it whereas reading the color word keeps all of the activity in a very confined area, leading to faster reaction times.

  You notice that there is a pretty long delay in naming the color of the font because your dominant left brain is busy reading the word. If i show you the simple color with no words, there is less delay because there is less interference . If i show you the words for the colors written in black, you can read those even faster because all of the information is going to be treated within the same left brain  modules and there is no interhemispheric treatment required. This situation requires the shortest processing time. Presenting conflicting information to your mind such as in the first example causes your dominant left brain reading faculties to spring into action (automatically) while your right brain is struggling to first detect the color then transfer that information over to the left hemisphere for processing. That takes a long time and also produces a lot of mistakes because two competing sources of information are being surveyed and this strains our ability to be accurate. This tells us that the ability to verbally name a word is dominant (as measured by reaction times) over the ability to identify a color. This experiment is one form of supporting evidence for the dominance of left hemisphere during certain activities.  Do the same experiment with a five 4 year old and you get the opposite result because a 4 year old can probably not read!

Why am i explaining this fascinating Stroop experiment to you again? Oh yeah, because it demonstrates how competing cognitive activities can drain global mental resources and lead to mistakes in task completion. It also demonstrates that there can be a preferential treatment of input on the part of the brain, such that when two conflicting tasks are demanded of it, it completes the one which requires the least effort. In another less scientific experiment, do you remember anyone asking you to try pointing your index fingers at each other laterally while turning them in circles of opposite directions?  At first, this task will be very difficult but you will get the hang of it with practice. The reason it is difficult is because there are conflicting instructions which must be carried out by the same regions of bi-lateral motor strips in the brain. Not only are the same motor strips being called into action on each side, but the same ''hand'' section of those strips is working to do opposite things. When those regions are pounded with conflicting types of task demands, you get some pretty funny reactions on the part of your body. When you call on the bilateral use of motor cortices, to do opposite or conflicting sorts of things then you run in to the same problem of ''lag'' and ''preferential treatment''. You will likely notice at first that you can control the direction of the circle for one finger or the other but not both at once. Which one you do best might vary from moment to moment as though there were a kind of on-off switch or a central gate through which only one action can be well performed at one time. You will likely find as i did that your dominant hand is preferred over the other.  Try this one just for fun: extend your elbow at 90 degrees, leaving your shoulder in a relaxed position and pointing your index finger forward.

Try turning your index finger in one direction while turning your forearm in the opposite (without moving your elbow or shoulder). This one is the hardest i have tried. Read more about what the hell is going on here:

If sheep move in opposite directions in a circle there will be a unified efferent movement at the point where the two streams meet. This could represent the brain's preferential treatment of one task over another when two or more tasks are conflicting.

The ultimate example of multitasking would be playing a 7 piece drum kit with both sets of arms and legs attending to as many as four different percussive notations. Right arm is firing on the quarter beat, left on the half beat, right leg on the off beat and left leg on the 3rd beat of a 4-4 timed rock rythm. The point is, the more tasks you take on, and the more inter-hemispheric communication required, the more likely you are to make mistakes, get tired or give up trying. In the case of our drummer, there are four limbs doing different things but at least limb movement is globally organized according to the 4-4 timing of the beat. The movement of the body, however varied and complex, is locked in to the rhythm and that rhythm acts as a kind of unifying container. It is sometimes referred to by musicians as ''the bedrock'' or the ''foundation''. When recording, musicians lay down the bass and drum tracks first because they are most associated with rythm and the harmony tracks are recorded after because they can be laid on top of the ''base tracks''. Remember this idea of being locked in to a beat through rhythm because we are going to come back to it.

A musician friend of mine reminded me the other day that children who play an instrument growing up exhibit up to 50% more density in the fibers of the Corpus Callosum.

When you diversify the nature of the task demands even more such as in the case of riding a stationary bicycle while reading a book, you notice that those two tasks are somewhat incompatible because they require such huge and different brain resources that there simply is not enough processing power to do either of them in an optimal fashion when they are done together. This is why it is illegal to text or use the phone while driving.  (Somehow, eating a sandwich is still allowed though...) This difficulty with certain kinds of multitasking is typified by the intuitively developed insult: ''he is incapable of chewing gum while walking''. In any case, the result is that one activity, (probably the stationary bike) is going to take precedence over the other and you will only get partial if any information out of the book you are reading. If you do force your attention onto the pages of your book, you run a much higher risk of falling off the stationary bike! Having just discussed some of the difficulties encountered when multitasking, let's return to the discussion about counter productive effects of multitasking: running vs. learning. We saw in the first post on this topic that it was difficult to run effectively when listening to an audiobook. That result was corroborated by subsequent observations. However, the reason for this present edition is that i have made some new observations regarding the productive effects of multitasking. Back in october, i did a few runs and noticed some things which suggested to me that multitasking can lead to increased productivity in some instances. Here are my observations: 1) Attending to the right kind of music can assist me in having a successful run by increasing my motivation. stamina and endurance. 2) The right kind of music for boosting my motivations is a moderate to fast paced marching beat of around 120-180 BPM 3) The maximum heart rate for a 38 year old is around 182 bpm so music at 180 bpm is best for sprinting while music at 140 bpm is best for a more moderately paced jog. 4) Auditory depiction of a moving object in the music, such as a train, plane, boat, footstep or animal increases motivation because i can identify with the moving object and psychologically move with it. 5) Jogging behind a runner who is running at my pace, greatly reduces the psychological impression of fatigue. Points 1 through 4 did not surprise me much because i had been acquainted with those phenomena during previous runs. However, point 5 did impress me enormously. At some point during one of my sunny day runs, i was feeling a little sluggish when this runner took position about 30 paces ahead of me. His passing me did initially increase my motivation to step up my speed but i quickly realized that keeping up with him became nearly effortless. If he got too far ahead of me i soon became tired again and raced to catch up to that 30 pace buffer. Each time this happened, i noticed how there appeared to be some sensation of synergy enabling me to run with less perceived effort. This runner was about my size and stature and was moving only slightly faster than i would normally run. As i jogged behind him, it started to become apparent that i felt i was working less hard and that i could go further than i previously intended (though i chose not to do this).

On later reflection, i believe that i was projecting myself onto him. Thus focusing on his body, took my mind off of the internal feeling state of my own body. Our movement was synchronized such that when he was on right leg or in the air, i was doing the same thing. Even our arms moved in tandem. After a while of focusing on the person ahead of me, i noticed that i was not attending to my own body anymore but was instead just running through the motions like a robot on autopilot. It felt kind of like floating. This experience was novel for me to such an extent that i felt a deep sense of depersonalization for brief moments.    A couple of times i internally verbalized: ''it feels like i am him and like i am not the one doing the running...'' I wondered if marathon runners encounter this kind of phenomenon. As I write this now, it occurs to me that maybe this is why the notion of ''lockstep'' may be universally present across all forms of military culture. Military marching may represent a form of depersonalized activity in which many individuals move as one single entity. What i discovered through my little jogging event is that lockstep can be a depersonalizing experience and that this can have the effect of increasing my endurance. Perhaps depersonalizing is not the proper adjective. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that it is my sense of individuality which takes to the background while i give in to a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself. Imagine, if this is a scientifically observable effect of marching in lockstep then we could understand how useful that type of activity might be if one needs to march off to war and potentially kill or be killed.

Moving as one, following orders like drones with no individual will to dissent

Ultimately, running with music which reflects the active heart rate and the jogging step rate reinforces the activity of running by increasing motivation. Furthermore, jogging in lockstep with a partner who is running at a 30 pace distance ahead enables an increase in motivation as well.  Though running while attending to music and another runner is technically considered multitasking, it places very little extra demand on cognitive resources and contributes to a longer, more enjoyable and therefore more successful run. I am not a neurologist so the best i can do is ask questions about my own experiences. As i do with all my posts, i start from the subjective observation of my lived reality and work backwards in an attempt to find a basis in neurology. This has been a really interesting journey so far and though i may not always arrive at the most scientifically sound conclusions, the avenues of exploration are in and of themselves sufficiently interesting in my view because they lead to discussion about Art Therapy, Neurology and Society. The scope of my expression in these posts is large because there are  a lot of things which have something to do with either art, therapy, neurology or society. In fact, any thing which affects a human being can be discussed through a neurological lens or an artistic vision and anything which has to do with sensation and perception has some relevance to the understanding of art therapy. Anything which affects any individual affects society. As Dylan say's: ''the village makes the villain'' and everything thing is connected through little than a few tiny degrees. So if you get the impression that these posts are all over the map, it is because they sometimes are! This is intentional. I can focus on one thing at a time but it's not as fun an exercise as trying to see how everything is connected. Thanks for reading.

2 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    I think the term “verbal overshadowing” has been applied to similar observations of the effects of speech on problem-solving.

    Most serious interference seems to be from “propositional” language in which truth-evaluable statements are made or evaluated.

    Try your experiment again with poetry or music. I’ll bet there is less conflict between listening and acting!

    • tom says:

      Yeah Nick, my experience tells me that you are correct. Even when listening to rap or hip hop, which is verbally ladden music, the interference does not seem as high. It seems as though when listening to verbal language while it is embedded in music allows me to focus just on the music. I have noticed on this situation that i focus on the beat of the music and it not only helps motivate the exercise on an emotional level but also helps me naturally synchronize my steps. So music motivates me and puts me in lockstep with the beat and also allows me greater ability to focus on the words in the music. When listening to an audio book, neurons in the language comprehension areas located in the left brain (Wernicke’s) seem to fire to the detriment of the adjacent motor areas which are also firing at a high rate, leading to neural noise and the experience of distractibility and cofusion. This leads to a higher potential for accidents. Which is why you are more likely to cut your finger if you are talking to somebody or involved in watching television. Running on a treadmill requires active attention to be focused on not falling off that machine. Active attention is limited to usually one thing at a time. Attempt to focus on two things simultaneously with any precision and you will find one of them soon escapes you. However, it does seem possible to focus on physical exercise while also focusing on music and to a lesser extent, the verbal data contained within the music (lyrics). For the most part, the aspects of the music being attended to are attended to somewhat passively, as opposed to the active attention required for running on the treadmill. The passive attention allows you to listen to the melody, tone, harmony and pitch of the music- all located on the right side of the brain- while also focusing on your step on the treadmill. However, if you were to try to focus on the beat, the timming of the percussion you would have a much harder time in theory because these are singularly functions of left brain regions in the temporal lobe. As you begin to utilise active attentional processes to distinguish and count valuable beats from irrelevant information, your performance on the treadmill would go down. Because your brain prioritizes focus on running on the treadmill as more important that focus on counting the beats, you will invariably find it impossible to count the beats in the music. The same holds true, according to my experience based theoretical proposition, that listening to words in an audio book is very difficult while running on a treadmill or playing a sport. Thanks for your response, it points to the different regions required for listening to words versus listening to music.

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