How Much is Too Much for the Brain ?

This morning, while cooking breakfast, I was listening to the radio. A great show from the “Science Lab” (NPR) came on talking about will power, or at least that’s what I thought it was about. The people in the experiment were asked to memorize a number. Participants did not know that there were actually two categories of numbers: two-digits and seven-digits.  They were given as much time as they felt they needed and told only that they would repeat the number when they got to another room down the hall.

BUT, as they would walk down the hallway a person would suddenly appear and give them the choice of a snack (as a kind of thank you for participating in the study). There were two choices: chocolate cake and a bowl of fruit salad.  At a rate of almost 3 to 1 the people with two-digit numbers selected fruit salad, while those with seven digits in their head chose chocolate cake.

The researchers concluded by saying that humans have two systems inside our brain constantly competing with each other for attention: the emotional system and the rational system (not to be confused with the left lobe and right lobe). Anyways, it turns out that keeping the rational brain busy with the task of remembering all seven digits prevents is from loudly overriding the emotional brain’s desire for the rich, gooey chocolate cake. While memorizing two-digits is “a piece of cake ” (just kidding – couldn’t resist).  It’s easy enough for the rational brain to remember the two digits AND enter  into the “cake or fruit” debate . Participants can hear the little voice in their heads saying “think about the calories…make the healthier choice…”

Interesting. I think I just learned a down side of multitasking!

About Dana Carmichael

Dana has a professional interest in Authentic Intellectual Work. This means focusing on improving intellectual quality in the classroom and increasing student engagement. By day, she does this work with a passion. By night, she is a thematic reader, examining a random essential question for the year through fiction, nonfiction, film and general random conversations.
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