“What Was That, Again?”

By Daniel Brumbach | October 14, 2016

By Christopher Sarachilli ’14

Dr. Katherine Moore and her team of students explore ways to deal with a world full of distractions.

You are at the grocery store to pick up a few items for a cookout. You look for a can of diced tomatoes in aisle 3, tucked into a wall with the crushed, plum, sauce, and paste varieties. You try to ignore the sign advertising half-off cans of olives, the store clerk restocking the jars of pickles to the left, the soft rock playing over the loudspeaker. The phone in your pocket buzzes, demanding your concentration with an email about your bank statement. You return your attention to the shelves, but it feels like you’re back at square one. It’s obvious that distractions complicate your search. But, what exactly is happening? How is your attention shifting? For how long? Perhaps most importantly, is it possible to improve?

In Arcadia University’s Attention, Memory, and Cognition (AMC) laboratory,Dr. Katherine Moore, assistant professorof Psychology, and her team of student researchers search for the answer.

Having such a large amount of student researchers in the AMC lab keeps faculty working at “a level of scholarly output you’re unlikely to find at any non-Ph.D. program other than Tier 1 schools.”

Throughout classrooms dotting the first floor of Boyer Hall, students run participants through studies that aim to “learn about everyday functioning” by “exploring the limits of human information processing,” according to the AMC lab’s website. The lab is running experiments that explore the relationship between colors and the ability to search; examine the effect of increasing the number of items being searched for; observe links between musical ability, cognition, and memory; and test the hypothesis that memory is heightened in those with synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a conflation of senses (for example, associating colors with numbers or experiencing a taste when meeting a new person).

The experiments themselves, which Dr. Moore calls “very boring video games,” attempt to pinpoint the factors that distract us from a task at hand and evaluate how those distractions impact our attention. By charging the participant with recalling information, finding words in a list, and other menial tasks, the experiments test the capacity of human attention when distracted.

In the grocery store example above, it turns out that, no, you cannot “get better” at multitasking. Maybe you practice your tomato-searching skills and, one day, you pick out the precise can in record time.

But, if you change the situation even slightly, for instance by searching for a different brand, “it’s as though you haven’t practiced at all,” said Dr. Moore. “The circumstance will always be different, so it’s not something you can just get better at. We have these ingrained limitations.”

The Value of a Naive Researcher

A Study That Grabs Attention

Dr. Moore was one of 270 researchers who took part in a study that aimed to shed light on the ways that psychology research is published. Part of the Open Science Collaboration, a group dedicated to expanding the behind-the-scenes data of published studies for others to evaluate, the Reproducibility Project: Psychology gained recognition in August 2015, when its results were published in Science magazine and featured in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Wired.com, among other outlets.

Dr. Moore, with a student from Elmhurst College, replicated a study on visual working memory and examined participants’ ability to determine if an item in a display had changed on repeated viewings. Their results “largely matched the findings from the initial investigation,” according to the study, but their replication wasn’t typical: Fewer than half of the 100 replicated studies produced the same findings as the original. That is, researchers studying psychology (and other sciences) were publishing results that may not hold up in repeat trials. The project’s findings have faced opposition. In March, a group of psychologists rebutted the Reproducibility Project in Science, claiming poor statistical evidence and decrying the media’s conclusions that psychology was in a crisis. The New York Times, for instance, wrote that the failed replications “could sow doubt in the scientific underpinnings” of the work done by researchers. The debate has not settled. Still, some of the Reproducibility Project’s suggestions are good to keep in mind in any field: be transparent, collaborate with others, and—most importantly—always double-check your work.

When Dr. Moore tells you that “getting better” at multitasking is a myth, skepticism is understandable.

Part of that is because of how many projects she takes on. In addition to the six studies in the AMC Lab, Dr. Moore teaches three classes a semester, grades papers, presents at conferences, meets with student researchers, and participates in a worldwide group committed to addressing issues of reproducibility in the sciences—a study that has caused a bit of a schism in the world of scientific research (see A Study That Grabs Attention sidebar). Married and a mother of two, she plays the tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) and choreographs and dances in a tap dancing troupe in Philadelphia.

In her nearly 10 years of teaching, Dr. Moore has mentored more than 50 students, collaborating with them on research, co-authoring papers, and guiding them through projects in the AMC lab. To her, student-faculty collaboration is one of her job’s biggest perks—she tries not to conduct research without students. She oversees the designs of a study, assigns topics to research, and shares her knowledge with students in the AMC lab, many of whom are undertaking large-scale research for the first time.

Unlike in many undergraduate psychology programs, Arcadia’s program requires original research advised by department faculty, noted Dr. Steve Robbins, chair of the Department of Psychology. Students receive a competitive edge when applying to jobs or graduate schools, gaining experience doing the type of work necessary in a master’s-level program or a career in research.

In the AMC Lab, student researchers, which fluctuate in number from six to more than 10, read research in the field, run studies, review data with Dr. Moore, and work with her to plan future studies.

“The lab has increased my knowledge in cognitive psychology, synesthesia, and how research is conducted,” said Casey Marcks ’17, Psychology major who will continue researching with Dr. Moore in the fall. Marcks also presented on the lab’s synesthesia research at the Eastern Psychological Association conference in March, sharing their findings with peers and faculty presenters and others in the field.

Having such a large amount of student researchers in the AMC lab keeps faculty working at “a level of scholarly output you’re unlikely to find at any non-Ph.D. program other than Tier 1 schools,” said Dr. Robbins. “Every year, we start working with a new set of excited, enthusiastic, young researchers-to-be. Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring.”

Less Buzzing; More Doing

In March, Dr. Moore presented on the technological implications of her work on distraction at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, attended each year by tens of thousands of filmmakers, musicians, developers, and others interested in emerging technology. To a standing-room-only crowd in downtown Austin, Dr. Moore offered a scenario commonly used when discussing human attention:

You are in a familiar place, such as on campus or in your neighborhood. A stranger asks for directions. You explain where to go. During your conversation, two people carrying a large board passbetween you and the stranger, blocking your view. In those few seconds, the stranger is swapped out with someone else, who continues the discussion as if nothing had changed.

How sure are you that you would notice that you are talking to someone new?

Studies show that, about half of the time, people don’t realize that the other person has changed, says Dr. Moore.

In this moment of forgetfulness, “you’re paying attention to what is being said, not noticing these other details,” she said. Your attention is limited to the more important information, like how the person can get to his or her destination. The finer details of his or her face don’t take precedence.

Dr. Moore’s work reveals the ways that our attention doesn’t always function as well as we may think, especially when it comes to juggling multiple tasks or pieces of information at once. This is where technology can come in handy.

Distractions and multitasking are harmful to productivity and attention due to the delays they create, and talking to Dr. Moore can lead to an ever-enlightening inventory of just how frequently we cause ourselves to become distracted. The GPS you use every drive might hurt your navigational skills (the back-up camera, though, could improve your parallel parking abilities). That playlist you made to help you get through last-minute work is likely making you less productive, not more (see sidebar), and the barrage of email notifications over the day has a net negative effect on your concentration.

Dr. Moore rejects the notion that technology is fated to destroy our concentration with constant notifications and alerts. Her research is guided by a current of optimism and hope for the ways technology can help distraction, not harm it.

The Soundtrack to Your Work

While your work playlist is no doubt an excellent mix of music, it might not help you get into the zone as much as you may think. “If I ask you about what happened in that music and you can’t really report back to me, that’s good,” Dr. Moore said. But, if you’re grooving to your Top 40/Oldies playlist while you eke out a few paragraphs, take heed: It is another instance of our limited attention. 

The attention we pay to the music is attention that could have been paid elsewhere. There is an exception: Certain types of music can help concentration, though the type differs slightly for each person. Typically, think new age, classical, quiet music—something you’d hear in a hotel lounge or an elevator. Dr. Moore has found that, when the music is right, some people can go into a kind of hyperfocus. She compares it to the way some are helped by listening to white noise. Certain sounds can keep busy the part of the brain that wanders, like a magician occupying the audience’s attention with a sleight of hand. Background noise can serve as a distraction for the part of our brain that, well, likes to get distracted. As for Dr. Moore, silence is golden. “I like music too much,” she said. “So I need it to pretty much be silent.”

She says that future devices should be able to figure out what you’re doing right now and know how important the information is that it’s delivering. Your device can then determine whether you should be interrupted.

“So, if you’re going to be late for an appointment, it will tell you that. If you have anemail, [depending on the content], it might tell you when you have finished the current task.”

Imagine that you are working on a project. The deadline looms—in fact, it’s here—and your supervisor needs it by the end of the day. Knowing that you are working on something important, your phone chooses not to notify you of the email you received on a two-for-one sale on pants. One of your coworkers just emailed you to tell you that information he previously provided you was incorrect; luckily, your phone knows the information is critical, and you get an email notification. Meanwhile, you miss a call from a telemarketer, your phone acting as a switchboard operator that knows you can’t take the call. But, your boss’s final request for the project comes through loud and clear—your phone knows you need to know.

This leads to two main concerns. For one, reliance on technology can lead to overdependence on technology.

“Your brain gets soft,” Dr. Moore said. “How many phone numbers do you even know of people that you call all the time? You have to consciously try to memorize them.”

The other concern, and the more difficult of the two to reconcile, is the amount of data that must be collected in order for technology to serve as a suitable assistant. Dr. Moore is undeterred, arguing that devices are even more intrusive now.

As it is, your phone barges into your life with every call, text, and email, unless you manually set what is or is not important. As for the issue of privacy, she takes a pragmatic—though not necessarily optimistic—approach: Your phone collects so much data, anyway, that “if you’re going to embrace technology to the level in which you are now, then you should like this, because it’ll help you be more productive.”

To Dr. Moore, big data is a wave of the future of psychology, a way to easily evaluate sample sizes of millions that could lead to big breakthroughs, as long as it is used ethically.

“The applications can be beneficial, or they can just be used for advertising or marketing,” she said. “I think that’s what people are afraid of.”

In the future, your phone may understand that you have only a short amount of time to prepare for your party and that you need to get those tomatoes back home within the hour. It may know, without any manual input, when you are bored on your commute and eager for news notifications, as well as when you need to focus on a due-tomorrow project. For now, it is best to take charge of your own distractions: Focus on one task at a time, turn off email notifications when heavy attention is required, make sure the most important events and reminders are set to notify you, and above all, do what you find works best.

If progress is to come, though, it requires more data, which is always a good thing for Dr. Moore, for whom, she admits, “it’s largely indulging curiosity. But that’s how science starts. You study these questions that seem to have no practical application first, and then have faith that you’ll gain knowledge that will inform something really important later on. That’s the whole thing with basic research: Scientists are curious.”