Saturday, September 06, 2008

Crammed TV screens a strain on the brain?

Ever since television executives decided viewers wanted screens crammed with banner headlines across the top, crawls along the bottom, talking heads in tiny boxes, moving graphics and unmoving logos, all of it pasted over a background of shape-shifting patterns, scientists and others have tried to figure out how well our brains are handling the information overload.

They're still trying to figure it out.

“The concept of utility, or how much information is getting processed, depends on how a person derives satisfaction,” said David Kirsh, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California San Diego.

“Some people like deep processing – examining a football game, for example, in a detailed way: Who's playing well? What are the weaknesses on each side? What are the coaching strategies? If they're experts, these viewers might not need more than a glance to know what's going on, like a chessmaster who can play multiple games blindfolded. That kind of deep understanding doesn't need much working memory.”

Most people, however, are more the checkers sort, one game at a time.

In case you've forgotten, working memory is short-term memory, somewhere between sensory memory and long-term memory. Sensory memories are brief, unprocessed signals that last only a fraction of a second. Think about those times when you scan a parking lot searching for your car. You see many other cars, but they flit through your head, quickly forgotten. They're sensory memories.

Long-term memories, like your mother's face or the name of your best friend in sixth grade, are more enduring.

Working memory is the selected information we consciously juggle in our heads at any particular moment. It persists as long as we're actively using it, but it is also limited. Studies indicate that working memory for most people consists of no more than three, maybe four, items retained at a time – a name and phone number, for example, or as many words as you can speak in two seconds.

Or maybe the last three plays of your favourite team’s scoring drive.

Given these limits and what is known about human brain function, some researchers wonder whether phenomena such as cluttered cable news screens are examples of cognitive overload.

A 2005 experiment at Kansas State University found that viewers who watched TV broadcasts with a news crawl remembered 10 percent fewer facts than those who watched the same broadcast without the stream of headlines, sports scores and weather updates.

The fact is, many researchers say, our brains aren't as good at multitasking as we think. Kirsh notes, for example, that it is impossible to read and really pay attention to someone speaking at the same time.

“The brain has to rapidly toggle back and forth, sampling each stimuli,” Kirsh said. “If what's being said isn't very informative, that quick sampling may be good enough to get the information. But if the message is more difficult or complicated, then one of the activities will require more thinking and focus.”

In a 2001 study at Carnegie Mellon University, study participants were asked to perform two mental tasks, sequentially and then simultaneously, while undergoing an MRI. Researchers reported that when participants multitasked, brain activity was just 56 percent of what it was when they focused on each problem separately.

Put another way, it may be hit-and-miss whether TV viewers can seriously evaluate how the Team A are positioning themselves in the field and simultaneously scrutinize camera angles of Team B’s positioning.

Still, our cerebral capacity is pretty remarkable, the product of more than 100 billion intricately connected neurons. Sheree Josephson, a professor of communication at Weber State University, said her students during lectures appear capable of writing, talking, eating, texting and surfing the Internet all at once.

Whether they are also learning is less certain.

Joseph Allen Schroeder, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Connecticut College, said human brains are good at filtering and focusing, but he wonders about the depth of knowledge acquired this way.

People have grown accustomed to instant information and lots of it, he said. But hardly anyone seems to linger, thinking.

It remains to be seen what viewers think about multiscreen Chelsea games or eight EPL contests at a time. Steve Mosier, Cox Digital's senior product marketing manager, said testing indicated that viewers enjoyed seeing six camera angles simultaneously.

Or at least they did “once they learned how to watch a game that way,” Mosier said.

Robert Mercer, director of media relations at El Segundo-based DirecTV, said the “Game Mix” package involved “no neuroscience.”

“Eight cells on one screen was the maximum that didn't look overwhelming, with each large enough so the individual images were easily viewable,” Mercer said. “Based on the feedback we've received, our NFL superfans and their neurons love this feature.”

Just don't ask them who won.