It’s not every brain scientist who explains her research using Shakespeare. But University of Michigan psychology professor Cindy Lustig describes brain development over a lifetime as a correlation with Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man.”
Using behavioral tests and brain scans, Lustig and her collaborators, Drs. Randy Buckner and Denise Head, study how age affects the brain’s ability to multitask. While the young child’s brain is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, as the brain develops it is able to switch between tasks quite quickly, reaching a multitasking peak in the 20s or 30s, says Lustig. Beyond that, the brain experiences “internal chatter” and has to work a lot harder to suppress distractions and maintain focus.
Early in life, Lustig says, we have a phenomenal ability to ignore everything except what’s right in front of us.
When children focus on a game or a puzzle, she says, they are not thinking about anything else. They are not thinking about their day or their grocery list. They focus solely on the one task, says Lustig, and don’t have any background noise.
Young children have trouble taking on more than one task at a time. Parents often exploit this weakness. When a toddler wants Big Brother’s favorite truck, they redirect him toward that cool race car in the corner.
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