OHS Canada Magazine

Distraction Hear and Now

March 1, 2009
By Dan Birch
Health & Safety

IMAGINE BEING A SAFETY MANAGER, preparing to lead the monthly meeting that's just about to start. The agenda is full, so everyone will need to focus to get things done.

IMAGINE BEING A SAFETY MANAGER, preparing to lead the monthly meeting that’s just about to start. The agenda is full, so everyone will need to focus to get things done.

But what’s that? The background air is filled with the sounds of hammers pounding and saws screeching, courtesy of renovations now under way. And for good measure, the grounds crew has just arrived, firing up its riding mower and weed whacker.

Taking the meeting to a less-distracting location may be the best move, particularly if you expect older staff members to absorb the information presented.

So suggests new research from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, published in last November’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Senior types (those in their mid-60s and older) appear less successful than young whippersnappers at filtering out distracting noises and memorizing pertinent information. “We’ve known for some time that older adults are more ‘distractible’. They have a harder time filtering out information that is irrelevant to the task at hand,” says Dr. Cheryl Grady, a researcher on the project and a senior scientist at the institute. “What we know less about is the brain mechanism by which this happens.”


The study by lead author Dr. Dale Stevens, Dr. Grady and Dr. Lynn Hasher, also a senior scientist at the institute, identified some brain regions at play: the auditory cortex and prefrontal cortex, which are associated with monitoring the external environment. Dr. Stevens points out that when seniors tried to memorize a face, these cortices were too active — what he calls “idling too high” — indicating brains were “processing too much irrelevant information from their external environment.”

For the current study participants, the irrelevant information was loud knocking and buzzing noises coming from the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine scanning their brains.

While lying in the scanner, subjects were shown pictures of 180 different faces, 120 of these twice. Older participants failed to recognize the repeated images 43 per cent of the time compared with 26 per cent among younger subjects.

In good health

All participants — young and not so young — were healthy and had no history of neurological, psychiatric or any other medical illness that could affect cognitive function. There were 12 volunteers in each of two groups: subjects 22 to 36 years of age (average age: 26); subjects aged 64 to 78 (average age: 70).

So what do study findings mean for skills training, including that related to occupational health and safety? Simply put: keep focused.

Dr. Grady says her “primary recommendation” for teaching seniors is to eliminate as much distraction as possible, whether noise, visuals or any form of superfluous information. Unnecessarily dividing attention, no matter the age, is never a sound strategy.

Dr. Grady suggests, however, that negative consequences of distracting older learners can be two-fold: they may not memorize what they were supposed to, and they may, in fact, learn and be able to later recall the excess, irrelevant information.

The presentation medium used — video versus print versus lecture, for instance — is unlikely to matter much, she says. What’s key is that information is succinct and clearly presented (the sizzle of background fireworks is likely to distract this crowd).

Barbara Jaworski suggests that research findings should be carefully considered by anyone who trains older individuals, whatever the topic. As a rule, the physical teaching environment should be free of distractions, says the CEO of the Workplace Institute, a labour training consultancy with offices in Toronto and Ottawa.

Recalling a scene familiar to many, Jaworski says when she was a teen she could “stick my headset on, listen to all kinds of music, do my homework, and there would be no conflict. Meanwhile, my parents would be saying to me, ‘How can you concentrate?'”

That ability to juggle, however, is not what it once was. “Now when I try to do the same thing, I have a lot more difficulty,” she says.

Trainers and educators in the oh&s field would be well-advised to stay current on memory and learning research, suggests Jane Sleeth, managing director of Optimal Performance Consultants in Toronto, which specializes in ergonomics and disability management. “It is critical for teachers, workshop leaders and oh&s professionals who develop training and educational material to be aware of this emerging knowledge and to apply it to the classroom,” Sleeth emphasizes.

In addition to reducing auditory and visual distractions, she recommends that trainers not demand too much multi-tasking of their students.

• If pupils are given reading material, allow them time to read it. Don’t continue the lecture while students are trying to digest the content.

• Ensure trainees understand the lesson by testing their newly acquired knowledge.

• Incorporate regular breaks into training sessions.

“The frequent use of short breaks allows the brain to absorb some of the information and organize it,” Sleeth goes on to say.

Stress, rattle and roll

There are distractions, beyond the visual or auditory, that can prove a tough hurdle to clear for would-be learners, says Jaworski. And right at the top is stress.

Take for example a worker who is completing computer skills training and is in the same session as fellow learners with far-advanced skills. The advanced group breezes through the training while the less tech-savvy worker struggles. The worker will likely become frustrated, says Jaworski, and may doubt his ability to pick up the new skills.

“Stress levels interfere with learning and memory,” she points out. “That increased stress is just going to make it that much more difficult.”

So are companies taking account of this when training? Sometimes, says Jaworski, but certainly not often enough.

Dr. Gail Eskes, an associate professor of psychiatry, psychology and medicine (neurology) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the Rotman institute study sheds light on how aging changes the brain functions when faced with auditory distraction. Usually with behavioural studies on memory, says Dr. Eskes, researchers”can really only make good inferences about what [they] think the problem might be.”

She says the recent findings, however, have confirmed one inference — that the auditory and prefrontal cortices were overly active. The research “opens up a lot of interesting questions about what, in general, is the role of distraction in forming memories, and what part of the brain is underlying that.”

Would an alternative type of sensory distraction create different results? Could the older group members be trained to manipulate their brains in such a way that they could lessen the distraction’s impact? Dr. Eskes asks.

Keep it simple

While trainers and educators can do a lot for learners by keeping things concise, individuals can also help themselves by, for example, eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and flexing their brain muscles through lifelong learning.

When it comes to diet, fish is often praised for its cognitive-boosting qualities. Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids in fish, such as docosahexaenoic acid, “are essential for neurocognitive development and normal brain functioning,” notes a December, 2005 study in Archives of Neurology. “Fish consumption may be associated with slower cognitive decline with age,” researchers write.

Dr. Eskes, for her part, has studied methods to enhance learning and memory in seniors. She has found that dispensing with “extraneous distraction” — say, television and radio — is a simple and productive strategy.

But reaching “golden” age does not necessarily mean the ability to concentrate has up and disappeared. “It’s not like we wake one morning at 65 and all of a sudden we’re different,” Dr. Grady says. “It’s a
gradual process.”

Dan Birch is acting assistant editor of OHS CANADA.


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