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Cognitive Science Confronts the Crawl

For some time, I’ve been interested in learning more about what cognitive science might tell us about the Crawls which have become the norm on the cable news networks. I tried talking to some key figures in the area and…
January 13, 2004

For some time, I’ve been interested in learning more about what cognitive science might tell us about the Crawls which have become the norm on the cable news networks. I tried talking to some key figures in the area and they all told me that their experiments were designed to measure one sensory imput at a time and that they were not sure we could pay attention to more than one thing at once. Of course, some of them no doubt told me this while they were listening to music or chatting on line with friends, so go figure.

The New York Time’s critic Caryn James wrote this week about news crawls, split screen movies, and the ways they are changing the ways we interact with media.

The most interesting part of the article comes when researchers in perception and cognition answer my question. Here’s a tidbit of what you can find on the Times website:

“MTV-style visuals have been criticized for promoting short attention spans. ‘You might almost say quick attention span,’ Prof. Mary C. Potter of the department of brain and cognitive sciences at M.I.T. said in a phone interview. ‘Some information can be picked up fairly rapidly, in a fifth or a tenth of a second. We move our eyes around three to four times a second.’“

“That’s plenty of time to hop from one part of a screen to another and pick up the essence of a story, though not long enough to retain many details or reason about it later. ‘If there’s some hook or connection like a chase scene, we can go back and forth more easily,’ she said.“

“It’s even more efficient to move your attention instead of your eyes, said Prof. Daphne Bavelier of the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, who caused a stir last year with a study that showed playing video games regularly can improve a person’s ability to take in objects quickly. As she emphasized in a phone interview, dividing your attention is very demanding if you want to do it well.”

Maybe someone out there can answer my question. I am looking for any research in cognitive psychology or learning science which explores how people process multiple media messages at the same time. We are seeing more and more examples of media that hits us with multiple imputs and we are more and more multitasking in our everyday lives. Surely someone knows how the brain responds to all of these signals.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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