'Reading thoughts’ – this is what keeps Jelmer Borst busy. Not in an esoteric way but with high-tech neuro-imaging techniques. In this way, he gains insight into what happens in our brains if, for example, we multitask, solve problems or allow our thoughts to drift.
Borst’s office is on the third floor of the Bernoulliborg building, which houses the Bernoulli Institute for Mathematics, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. The assistant professor has a stunning view of two of the most futuristic buildings in Groningen: Linnaeusborg and the Energy Academy Europe. In fact, this is a fitting location for his research, which focuses among other things on retaining, shifting or losing attention, such as multitasking and ‘mind wandering’. He makes use of neuro-imaging techniques such as fMRI, EEG and MEG scans. These show which areas of the test subject’s brain are active, so that a good image of how the brain is working at a specific moment can be formed.
‘Mind wandering’ is the drifting of thoughts or, put better, the involuntary jumping of attention from one topic to another. It is a process of thinking about thoughts that have nothing to do with the task that the person is carrying out at that moment. Mind wandering is therefore also known as ‘task-unrelated thinking’. Borst: ‘It is a general phenomenon that has both advantages and disadvantages. It is, of course, not favourable to carrying out the task at hand but it can actually help in matters such as problem-solving, thanks to the ideas that are generated spontaneously.’
In 2012, Borst obtained his PhD on the topic of human multitasking and he is still an expert in this field. Which he doesn’t actually object to, even though he is currently focusing on other topics. He patiently explains this process once again. ‘We can do two things at the same time, like driving a car and talking. This can be done simultaneously very well because we use different areas in the brain for those tasks: the language centre and the motor cortex. But it goes wrong as soon as we carry out actions that both use the same area of the brain, such as listening to our conversational partner as well as to the GPS directions, as both of these tasks use the language centre. Or driving whilst typing on a phone, as both tasks use the motor cortex.’
Multitasking doesn’t always get good press – but it does have some advantages. ‘It works well when carrying out routine tasks and can also improve efficiency. You can save time, for example, if you fold away the laundry whilst cooking instead of doing it afterwards. Another advantage is that you don’t get bored with monotonous activities as quickly. If you are driving through a desert, it is better if you have a conversation or listen to the radio at the same time. “Monotasking” or “singletasking” can even be hazardous in such a situation.’
For more complex tasks, the situation is significantly different. ‘Conducting multiple tasks at once doesn’t work in these situations,’ says Borst. ‘A person’s working memory can only focus on one thing at a time. Because what happens if we are distracted by a text, an email, a phone call or a chat with a colleague? The task is disrupted and the information disappears from the short-term memory. When you return to the original task, you must then recall information from the long-term memory, which takes time. A consequence of this is that we carry out tasks less efficiently and make mistakes, which can cause frustration and annoyance.’
We can tell how much information is being stored in our short-term memory by looking at our eyes. In particular, our pupils dilate when we are retaining more information, which we can measure with an eye-tracking device. One of Borst’s Master’s students is researching a programme that follows a person’s eyes while they solve sudoku puzzles on a computer. When the person solves a square in the puzzle, the eye-tracker records a small constriction of the pupil, which signals a moment of interruption. The programme therefore allows you to work in a more efficient way by blocking notifications, such as emails and texts, when you are concentrating but allowing them during short intervals of reduced attention. The US Air Force is very interested in the research, as it could be able to issue warnings when the concentration of pilots slackens.
Borst is affiliated with CogniGron (the Groningen Cognitive Systems and Materials Center) at the UG, which hopes to develop a new generation of computer systems that are inspired by the human brain. The Bernoulli Institute for Mathematics, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence is collaborating on this project together with colleagues from the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials (ZIAM). To this end, the ‘Zernikians’ are working on smart materials for a new type of micro-electronics, and the ‘Bernoullians’ are employing models of neural networks. Borst: ‘Computers can already calculate better than our brains, but they are less good at recognizing patterns and assessing complex situations. The storage and processing of data are separate processes in computers, while they are integrated in the human brain. CogniGron is focusing on the development of computers that can process data faster and that also use less energy.’
In meditation circles, the human spirit is often presented as a hysterical, hyper-active monkey, which cannot sit still and almost literally jumps from one topic to another. How can you calm this spirit down? And how can you do this for so long that you are able to stay concentrated for a long period of time? Borst: ‘Meditation doesn’t work for me, although it does work for my colleague Marieke van Vugt, for example, who is researching what happens in people’s brains when they meditate. If I want to empty my mind, I prefer running. For an hour at a time, without listening to music. And if I need to stay focused when writing an article, for example? Then I put my phone away, close my emails, Facebook and website tabs and close my office door. That really works best.’
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