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MT: This is Maura Thomas from Welcome to the second part of my interview with Dr. John Dovidio, psychology professor at Yale University. You can see the previous post by clicking the link at the top of this page.

MT: It’s an interesting point that you bring up about evolutionary adjustments, because there is some recent research talking about how the brain is apparently much more plastic than we had originally thought, and, while 10 or 15 years ago, scientists used to think that things became a bit more static at a young age, now it seems like there are dramatic changes going on well into the teens and even early 20’s. So what do you think about the potential for children who are growing up in this fast-paced, multitasking environment, especially media and technology multitasking environment?  What do you think the odds are that they will learn to adapt?   Studies have shown that multitasking both decreases the quality with which things are done and increases the time it takes to do those things.  If the minds of these kids are, in fact, a lot more plastic than we thought and they do have the ability to adapt, what do you think their prospects are for whether or not they’ll be better at multitasking than adults are today?

JD: The brain is built to be adaptive.  It’s really designed to enable us to adapt to all sorts of new circumstances, including multitasking. Your point is a good one, that there is a fundamental difference between the way the brain works for younger people — through adolescence, through early adulthood — and for older people. So the younger people, they’re actually seeking as much information and stimulation as they can get. It’s all about acquiring information, and for older people it’s more about consolidating information. So the brain makes the switch.  What multimedia presentations do is provide lots of information.  People still have a limited amount of capacity for how much they can actually understand at any one time, but people can develop new ways of managing that information so that they can process more information than they ever could before.  There are limits to how much stimulation people will be able to benefit from before it becomes overload. Over time, with experience, and over generations, and also as the technology changes to become more palatable and easily digested by people, I would expect people would be able to adjust to all this different multitasking and become better at it. However, that doesn’t mean that’s going to be an infinite growth. There are limits to what people can process at any one time, and anything more than that is going to become disruptive, distract our attention, and be counter-productive in terms of the learning and in terms of all sorts of social relationships and activities.

MT: Not only “not infinite,” but perhaps not immediate?  If I heard you correctly, I think what you’re saying is that people will adapt to the technology and to the fast-paced, multitasking environment that technology has created, but it may not be the next generation, the people who are teenagers now, but perhaps further generations out?

JD: Right.  People adapt individually both in terms of experience and in terms of generational change much more slowly than technology develops. So one of the problems is that technology keeps changing so rapidly that no human being can keep up with that at a sustained rate.  What will happen is that each generation, each person, is going to push the envelope a little bit in terms of what they know and what they can process and how many things they can handle at one time   They’re just going to hit a limit, and it’s likely that the next generation will have greater capacity to do that, but they’ll hit their limit.  And like I said, the problem  is that they’re going to hit their limit far sooner than what’s going to be out there in terms of technology.  The technology is always going to be offering more than they actually can handle at any one time.

This is Maura Thomas from Thanks for listening to part two of my interview with Dr. John Dovidio, psychology professor at Yale University.  I hope you’ll come back on Monday to hear or read about the differences in fractured attention due to conditions like ADD, versus due to our media multitasking environment. Also, if you’re interested in reading up on the current research, please visit the “Research and Resources” page of this website. Thanks for visiting!

(Click here for Part 3.)

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