The brain functions like a smartphone – filled with applications many of which can multi-task. Different parts of the brain and different neural circuits are employed by the brain to perform various functions. What happens when one function hinders the performance of another ? In the iPhone example, what happens when you are listening to a song and a call comes through. The iPhone decides to suspend playing the song and gives your incoming call preference.

Similar to the iPhone, we need to set up processes in place (consciously or sub-consciously) that will help us manage the conflicts in the brain. In a previous post, we looked at the Stroop Test. Two different theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon:

Selective Attention Theory: According to this theory, naming the actual color of the words requires much more attention that simply reading the text.

Speed of Processing Theory: According to this theory, people can read words much faster than they can name colors. The speed at which we read makes it much more difficult to then name the color of the word.

The cognitive mechanism involved in this task is called directed attention, you have to manage your attention, inhibit or stop one response in order to say or do something else.

Integrating conflicting brain functions

The first step is to be aware of the conflicts. Without this awareness not much can be done.

OK! We are aware that there could be conflicts and that we need to direct attention to help us handle the conflicts in our brain. What does it mean and how can we apply this in our lives? Here’s my take on integrating and making sense of conflicting brain functions.

Traffic Light (LED)
Creative Commons License photo credit: aimhelix

If you have driven in any major city in the world, you will quickly begin to appreciate the complex grid of highways that are available for the road runners! Traffic moves along different paths, different directions and lanes all happening simultaneously and even seemingly unrelated to each other. This ability to move along different directions and paths is very important for smooth flow of a city’s traffic system. And to regulate opposing directional flow of traffic, we have the traffic lights in play.

Can we use this analogy to describe our neural networks? The ability to handle conflicting brain functions is an important component of brain function. We deal with this every day. And when the functions need opposing set of brain skills or effort, some sort of traffic light system must be employed to regulate which brain function is employed.

Let me take the example of preparing for this post. I was researching brain related topics on the net when I came across the Stroop test. I found it interesting and did a few tests on the web. Then I started Googling the Stroop test. I found tons of materials and a few thousands of sites. I started picking a few sites, reading the content and making sense of what I learnt.

Analysing my efforts, what I did involved:

Search for Stroop Test Broadening my understanding of content
Understand Search Result Deepening my understanding one result at a time
Collate and Organise Involves, organizational skills, keeping the overview of the collated content in mind
Prepare Posts Preparing organized content into posts. This involves editorial skills, knowledge of language and grammar and application of presentation techniques.

As you can see, different brain functions are called to play in the whole process. If I try to combine multiple functions, I have to reorient my brain to different functions. Preparing a post means I have to focus on punctuation, spelling, presentation etc. When I am searching and collating content, I can safely forget about these and focus on other brain functions that will help my task. Trying to work on writing a post as I do my research will call into play opposing brain functions and hinder the performance of the brain.

It pays to assign and allocate separate time slots for differing brain functions. And if I want to be smart about it, I will ensure that when I am researching, I try and get material for a few posts at the same time, thereby using the search momentum that the brain has gathered.

Happy Reading and while your brain is in the learning mode, here are a few interesting links to read:

Stroop Effect

Edward de Bono’s Direct Attention Thinking Tools

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