Novelty Reminder: Be sure to check out the new weekly Wednesday neuroscience “Book Review in Pictures” – The Enchanted Loom! You’ll instantly yummify your brain’s pleasure centers. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
So I’m standing in line at the grocery store pawing through People Magazine trying to take delight in some yummy morsels of celebrity gossip when suddenly a Chatty Charlie starts burbling away on his cell phone right behind me. Apart from whether it’s simple narcissism, lack of social awareness or some form of performance art, it’s more than what Charlie’s saying that’s bugging me. As far as I can make out he isn’t talking about me and his voice isn’t especially obnoxious. Other things are making me want to stare him down and adamantly encourage him to take the call outside.
Would you believe me if I told you that my brain was processing his “halfersation” … as a threat to my survival?
Halfersations Hurt My Brain
Princeton neuroscientist Lauren Emberson and her colleagues have discovered that hearing half a conversation adversely impacts normal cognitive function. It does so in a number of ways.
Human brains learn best – that is, grow new cells and make new connections between existing brain cells through something attachment researchers call contingent communication – I say something; you say something in response; I say something related to your response; you say something further related to mine (people who have difficulty with auditory sensory processing as a regulatory function, i.e. they struggle to remain calm in response to words and sounds, will often use non-contingent non-sequiturs to steer conversations in more emotionally manageable directions).
Unlike a publically-presented speech or a monolog, one-sided conversations are non-contingent and unpredictable, since listeners are missing half the information. Unpredictable situations generate increased levels of stress, requiring me to more closely attend to Charlie for any threat that he might pose – for example overhearing the word “police” or “crazy” two or three times sprinkled through a conversation – will immediately put the threat detectors in my brain on Red Alert.
Tone It Down, Tony
But unpredictability isn’t the only threat. Michigan State sociologists Jonathan Forma and Stan Kaplowitz compared cell phone and in-person conversations for sound levels. Many of us tend to speak more loudly into cell phones. It’s as if we don’t trust the technology to clearly convey our decibel levels. Forma and Kaplowitz measured the actual loudness of conversations on cell phones versus face-to-face in public places. They found that people on cell phones speak 1.6 times as loud as people do chatting in person. Loud talkers also put the brain’s threat-detection systems on high-alert.
Beyond his loud mouth, as more and more of my attention is required to listen to Charlie’s conversation, considerable neural resources must be brought to bear, leaving me struggling to pay full attention to what’s troubling Brangelina or Kate and Harry’s new baby Princess. Being a momentary insider to celebrity gossip is the more enjoyable place I’d prefer to place my attention while waiting in a grocery line. Having restricted attentional choice imposed upon me by someone else makes me feel quite irritated. Inflicted, uninvited distractions are like that. Think: two undergrads loud-whispering in the library, or a baby crying on an airplane, or a street schizophrenic speaking word salad.
As Brown University acoustic neuroscientist Seth Horowitz points out in his book, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, part of what makes halversations more challenging than visual, physical or olfactory distractions, for example, is that our ears are always on.
Not only are our ears on while we’re awake and standing in the checkout lane at the supermarket, but they remain on all through the night, even during our deepest sleep. Sudden night noises alert us that something happened; it’s our ears’ job is to constantly listen for changes in the nearby environment that might represent a threat. Halfersations pose threats.
But the cognitive impairment that results from being subjected to one-sided conversations isn’t solely confined to the cell phone half-alogues of strangers. The evidence suggests that we are also subjected to similar distractions and increased cognitive demands while overhearing the halfersations of friends or family members. McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in his book, The Organized Mind that the extra work required to task switch between the heard half and the unheard half of a one-sided conversation …
has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking….To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. Task-switching is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.
This kind of research suggests that much like they’ve done with Distracted Driving Laws, we would all benefit if states passed distracted grocery shopping laws for those of us who like others to keep their cell phone conversations safe, private and confined to just one other person.
As the grocery cashier begins ringing up my purchases, we exchange a glance instantly conveying our mutual irritation. In that moment I also feel that in addition to whatever cognitive price I may be paying, Charlie’s halfalogue also feels inconsiderate and disrespectful: the person on the phone warrants more importance and attention than the commoners right in front of him. These are good lessons for me to keep in mind next time I’m out in a crowd with my own cell phone.