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Sometimes multi-tasking is a must. But if you want to think outside the box, you need to be able to focus. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania has found one way to train your brain to do one thing at time, in an innovative fashion.

As you read this article are you..uh...uhmm...engaged in other simultaneous tasks? Are you listening to music, maybe keeping one eye on a chat or the TV, talking with a family member, petting the cat? Are you instant messaging? Checking your bank account online? Talking on your cell phone?

Since the 1990's, most of us have taken for granted that multi-tasking, shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession, is a good thing. Nearly all of us spend most of out time juggling two or more tasks at once, switching back and forth between activities as we hurry through the day.

The downside of multi-tasking, psychologist Edward Hallowell wrote in his book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! in 2006, is that it's a little like playing tennis with three balls. You're great on the serve, but you're lousy on the return.

Multi-tasking may allow us to take on life's challenges pro-actively, but not reactively, paying attention to the people and processes in our lives, and without the reflection necessary to make constructive changes.

An Academic Study of "Zapping" the Brain's Filter

Thinking outside the box to find new ways to deal with life challenges, professor Sharon Thompson-Schill of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania tells us, requires the ability to focus attention, not to spread it out over a series of nearly-simultaenous tasks. Dr. Thompson-Schill and her colleagues recently completed a laboratory study that mapped the region of the brain that makes focus possible.

Thompson-Schill's team recruited volunteers to participate in an experiment in which they were shown photos of everyday objects and asked to come up with out-of-the-ordinary uses for them. The participants in the study were shown different everyday objects such as a baseball bat or a rolling pin every nine seconds, 60 objects in all, while researchers noted how long it took them to come up with a valid response, if any.

Dr. Thompson-Schill described the task as the opposite of multi-tasking. In multi-tasking, it is necessary to filter out extraneous information to get a task done. In creative thinking, it is necessary to focus on an object but to be open to all kinds of information about it to come to novel conclusions.

The volunteers were divided into three groups. One group was fitted with a headband designed to deliver a magnetic field, called transcutaneous direct current stimulation, to the left prefrontal cortex. Producing a slight tingling sensation, stimulating this part of the brain shut down the "cognitive filter" that forces focus on an object, allowing various thoughts, memories, and feelings to enter consciousness. Another group was fitted with a headband that stimulated a different part of the brain, and a third group was not fitted with any kind of brain-inhibiting magnetic device.

Less Filtering, More Creativity

The University of Pennsylvania researchers found that the participants who weren't fitted with any brain-training device were able to articulate new uses for 45 out of the 60 objects, giving their answers in an average of 5 seconds. The study participants who were fitted with a magnetic headband to dampen the brain's focusing process were able to suggest new uses for 52 out of the 60 objects, giving their answers in an average of 4 seconds.

Turning of the brain's filter interferes with the ability to juggle multiple, mindless tasks at the same time. For this kind of activity, the ability to discriminate among stimuli and to pay specific attention to specific tasks is essential. But for learning something new, Dr. Thompson-Schiller says, it's necessary to experience one stimulus at a time more fully.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Coutanche MN, Thompson-Schill SL.Informational connectivity: identifying synchronized discriminability of multi-voxel patterns across the brain. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013
  • 7:15. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00015. Epub 2013 Feb 7.
  • Kowatari Y, Lee SH, Yamamura H, Nagamori Y, Levy P, Yamane S, Yamamoto M. Neural networks involved in artistic creativity. Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 May.30(5):1678-90. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20633.
  • Photo courtesy of susanvg on Flickr: