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How Much Football Can Sports Fans Handle?
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How Much Football Can Sports Fans Handle?

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How Much Football Can Sports Fans Handle?

How Much Football Can Sports Fans Handle?
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On Sundays, many sports fans accomplish a multitasking feat: They watch seven or eight games at a time on multiple TV screens. Multitasking expert Greg Trafton and Andrea Seabrook discuss how much fans' minds can handle.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's not unusual on a day like this to flip on the tube and take in a football game.

(Soundbite of football game)

SEABROOK: Hey, maybe even two games.

(Soundbite of football game)

SEABROOK: That's a good football fix, right? But if you went to a sports bar today, as I did, you had seven football games vying for your attention.

(Soundbite of football game)

SEABROOK: Now, we're talking sensory overload. I mean, I find this mesmerizing. We're here at the ESPN Zone in Washington D.C., and they've got every single one of the early NFL games on, and there is a huge TV screen, perhaps the biggest I've ever seen outside of a movie theater, flanked by 12 other TVs.

I'm surrounded by televisions, so how do people pay attention to all of this? How does the mind even handle the scores, the stats, everything? To help us figure that out, I'm joined by Greg Trafton. He studies multitasking at the Naval Research Laboratory here in Washington. Welcome to the ESPN Zone.

Mr. GREG TRAFTON (Head, Intelligence System Section, Naval Research Laboratory): Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What's going on in your mind as we sit here in front of this thing and try and take in seven games?

Mr. TRAFTON: Well, it's too much information, to start with. You are able to pay attention basically to one thing at a time, and that's basically all. If - for really, really simple stimuli, for really, really simple things like a ball moving around on the screen, you might be able to pay attention to four or five things, but as complexity increases, we are terrible at it.

But what we can do is we can switch attention really fast, so it's only one thing at a time, but you can look at a whole lot of things really fast. OK. So it looks to you and I, like people, can have a whole lot of balls juggling up in the air, but really, it's only one a time, almost always.

SEABROOK: Well, I am able to drive my car and talk on my phone.

Mr. TRAFTON: You are, very poorly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: How do you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: You've seen me driving, I guess.

Mr. TRAFTON: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAFTON: So, what happens when you're driving, a lot of your attention is actually going to the cell phone, to your conversation. Your driving performance actually suffers from that hugely. There are I don't know how many hundreds of studies that show that people are really, really bad at doing those two particular tasks, very poorly.

SEABROOK: I mean, because I have to say, sitting here - when I walked into this place, I was absolutely bowled over.

Mr. TRAFTON: So, one of the things that we do know is that loud noises distract us, number one. And number two, loud noise kind of defuses the information as well.

SEABROOK: Really?

Mr. TRAFTON: So, what happens is that the base level loud noise, we kind of get dumber at some level. Everybody gets dumber.

SEABROOK: Really.

Mr. TRAFTON: As ambient noise goes up really loud, if there is a really loud noise, then our attention is drawn to that.

SEABROOK: I see.

Mr. TRAFTON: And so, those two things are big operants here. So if somebody scores a touchdown, we all look in that particular area. However, the really loud general noise kind of makes everybody a little slower and little bit stupider.

SEABROOK: Maybe that's what makes dance clubs kind of fun Just shut it off. Go with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAFTON: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: So Greg Trafton, your verdict please. Can a sports fan sit here and take in seven games at once?

Mr. TRAFTON: Well, yes and no, at some level. At a very high level, you can kind of say, yeah, this team is ahead or even what the score is of a particular game. But if I really want to pay attention to all seven games at once with a whole lot of focus, no way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: No way. Greg Trafton studies cognitive science at the Naval Research Laboratory here in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much, and hey, enjoy the game.

Mr. TRAFTON: Thank you very much.

SEABROOK: Sss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAFTON: Games, right.

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