ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I'm sorry to interrupt. Excuse me. Pardon the interruption. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to talk about interruptions. Especially in the digital age, we suffer from a constant stream of them. And suffer is the word. Interruptions actually have a cost, as Shankar explains. Welcome to the program. Shankar - Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Oh, oh, sorry, Ari. I got distracted by a funny tweet. What were you saying?
SHAPIRO: That interruptions have a cost.
VEDANTAM: Yes, they have a big cost, Ari. And one of the big costs is that it takes actually a very long time once you get interrupted to get back to what you're doing. So right now, for example, I'm still thinking about that funny tweet.
SHAPIRO: I'm sure it was a great tweet, but for the moment could you explain what we mean when we say interruptions?
VEDANTAM: Anything that really distracts us from a primary task, Ari. You're focused on something, writing a report, getting something done; someone comes in, asks you to do something else for a couple of minutes, and then you find when you try and get back to the primary task, your brain is somewhere else.
SHAPIRO: And how do you quantify the cost?
VEDANTAM: Well, researchers have found what many of us know, Ari, which is that once you get interrupted, it can take a really long time to get back to what you're doing. There's been some estimates that it can take several minutes, sometimes half an hour, to get back to your original task. I was speaking with Eric Blumberg. He's a cognitive psychologist at George Mason University. And he asked me to think about the effects of interruptions on people who are nurses or airline pilots.
ERIC BLUMBERG: They often get inundated with interruptions, and in those situations, because they're doing such complex work with really, you know, severe outcomes - whether positive or negative - those interruptions, you know, can lead to some disastrous things.
SHAPIRO: OK, well, if the consequences of interruptions can be disastrous, short of locking ourselves in a soundproof chamber, what can we do?
VEDANTAM: Well, since we can't get people to stop interrupting us, Bloomberg had an idea. Scientists have long used electric brain stimulation to change how the brain works. And he asked himself can we use this technique to help people recover more quickly from an interruption. So just to backup for a second, Ari, the brain is an electrical system. And if you apply a mild electric current to the brain, you can change the way it works. So what you do is you position electrodes on different parts of the head. You run a very small electric current between the electrodes and you can make parts of the brain either more active or less active. So Blumberg and his colleagues recently decided to apply electrodes over one part of the brain that's known to be active in shaping attention. And this area - it's called the prefrontal cortex - plays a very important role in directing how we pay attention to different things. And the electric stimulation gave this area a little boost. The researchers then gave volunteers different tasks, interrupted them and then measured how quickly they could refocus their attention after the interruption. Here's Blumberg again.
BLUMBERG: For the participants that received stimulation at the prefrontal cortex - it was just 30 minutes of stimulation - we were able to have about a 12 to 13 percent reduction on how long it took participants to resume their primary task.
SHAPIRO: OK, so it sounds like I just need to wear a shock helmet and I can overcome interruptions in my daily life. Any downsides to that, Shankar?
VEDANTAM: Well, the thing is, in the ways that they have been used in laboratory experiments - short periods of time - I don't think people have detected adverse consequences. But healthy people haven't used them in their daily lives for extended periods.
SHAPIRO: Well, how could we use this short of wearing a shock helmet?
VEDANTAM: I think the idea is eventually that is exactly what we might do. So this is what I would call a small pilot study, Ari. But obviously in lab experiments you can only measure very specific things - people getting interrupted in very specific ways. The trick is to see if the same techniques can work in the real world. So maybe one day, Ari, in what people sometimes call our post-human future, people will actually wear these helmets and then not get distracted - nurses, airline pilots might do it. Even journalists one day, Ari. Even journalists might one day wear one of these helmets and not get distracted. Ari - Ari, we need to wrap up this segment, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Oh, sorry, I was just sending a tweet.
VEDANTAM: As you can see, Ari Shapiro spends a lot of time on Twitter. He's @arishapiro.
SHAPIRO: And that's NPR social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. He is on Twitter - @hiddenbrain. And he's hosting a brand-new podcast. Look for "Hidden Brain."
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