Improving Concentration: Electrical Shocks or Deep Work?

This Hidden Brain segment looks at working memory and how distractions can hinder how much it can store at a given time. Steve Inskeep, the host, explains how working memory can be improved by limiting distractions. However, the way to improve it can vary. Inskeep talked to Melissa Scheldrup, a PhD student at George Mason University, and Cal Newport, an associate professor at Georgetown University. Both individuals found ways to improve working memory by decreasing distractions, but in two different ways.

Inskeep first interviewed Scheldrup who had him play a game called “Warship Commander”, where you have to make sure allied planes get through unscathed and listen for updates about the warship all while attacking the enemy planes. Of course, there are more rules to the game and the planes are colored differently, indicating different status’s. The overall point of this game is to show how easily the mind can get distracted and how the working memory can be overwhelmed. Scheldrup explained that someone with a good working memory can bounce back easily from distraction, but not everyone has good working memory. So, Scheldrup wanted to see how exactly she could improve working memory. Her solution? Electrical shocks.

Electrodes were attached to the side of Inskeep’s head and he was given small, electrical shocks that he describes as “very, very mild tingling”. He then was asked to play the game again and found he was able to figure out who the enemy was six out of six times. Of course there was skepticism as to whether it was the electrodes or practice, but Scheldrup had ran analyses (while controlling the effects of practice) on all her previous participants and found the results to be the same – the electrical shocks does improve working memory capacity.

But this can’t be the only way to improve working memory, right? After all, it’s not necessarily practical to walk around with electrodes attached to your head. Cal Newport believed the best way to improve working memory is to do deep work. This is when we do work that is distraction-free to allow for deep thinking.

Most people today do shallow work, which is work with distractions (e.g. checking e-mails, text messages, answering calls, etc.). This is what Newport thinks makes us robotic and decreases our working memory. Even by quickly checking that text message during work to confirm dinner with a friend, we are switching our context and this negatively impacts our cognitive performance. So what does Newport suggest doing to help with deep work? Three simple steps:

  1. Plan out your day and have set hours to do only work – no distractions.
  2. Don’t let your mood dictate your day. Try to stick to the schedule.
  3. Don’t let yourself get distracted by e-mails, text messages, and other things that don’t require your immediate attention so you can focus more on your deep work. (Newport made the joke that he has learned to be comfortable at annoying people with the lack of response he gives people in regards to emails and messages).

Newport and Inskeep mention how Mark Twain actually would go to his cabin at the edge of his property to reflect and do the deep thinking Newport discusses. At the end of the day, it is up to us on how we spend our time and use our working memory. Overall, I found this segment interesting considering the exercise we did in class to see how many numbers we could remember. It made me wonder which of the two methods discusses in the segment would work better.