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IUPUC professor studies science of multitasking


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Have you found yourself reaching the bottom of a page in a book you’re reading, only to realize that you have forgotten what you read? Or have you walked into a room only to realize you have forgotten why you went into the room?

These examples represent failures of cognition, or mental processes, and IUPUC psychology professor Thomas S. Redick is studying the circumstances of such cognition failures. He also is trying to figure out whether cognitive abilities — multitasking, fluid intelligence (the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly) and temporary memory — can be improved through training.

Redick is working with researchers at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, on a $150,000 Office of Naval Research grant project in which he is subjecting IUPUC students and Columbus residents to tests to gauge their memory, multitasking and language-learning capabilities.

In one test, subjects hear a series of letters while they have to solve basic math problems, and they have to memorize the sequence of the letters and solve the math problems correctly.

The test can provide insights into how well people could serve as language interpreters, for example, because solving the math problems takes away the attention from memorizing the letter sequence, a process that simulates how a translator is distracted by listening to speech while at the same time having to translate.

The military has an interest in the research because it has to identify a career track for each recruit, a process in which the military tries to determine who is best suited to be a pilot or work in aviation electronics.

The military already has a broader assessment program, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but Redick said his research aims to identify a more specific test of cognitive abilities to determine, for example, who would best be suited for a career in learning and translating Arabic.

The military needs more translators, Redick said, but learning a language takes a long time, even with intensive training over several months.

That training — and the lack of translators — costs a lot of money.

Tests that can predict with a great accuracy a recruit’s language-learning capabilities could lower language acquisition time and, therefore, costs.

Redick said he knows well the critical role interpreters play in U.S. military efforts. His older brother, James, served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army last year and said interpreters were critical to communicate and build rapport with townspeople.

Attention control

The $150,00 grant pays for fees people get when they take the tests, as well as school administrative costs, research assistance and equipment.

The tests are given in four sessions, each lasting about two hours. Redick’s team has tested about 30 people so far and hopes to test another 30 by the end of the summer.

Redick, who grew up in the Muncie area, is doing the research with colleagues at Georgia Tech, where he obtained his doctorate and conducted similar research before he came to IUPUC in 2011.

Zach Shipstead, a postdoctoral fellow in Georgia Tech’s psychology department, said the Georgia Tech lab is conducting similar tests, including one in which people sit at a computer and have to name the color in which a word is written — even though the word spells out a different color.

The speed and accuracy with which people complete the tests reveal information about attention control. Another test gauges long-term retention and has subjects listen to an Arabic word while the English translation is shown on the screen.

After 15 words, the subjects hear the words again and then have to chose from a list of words the correct translation. Another test requires people to name as many animals as they can in two minutes.

Shipstead said researchers hope to identify ways to train people to keep their attention focused long term.

Dillon Rhoades, an IUPUC junior who helps Redick’s team in the lab, said he has enjoyed working on the project, in part because of his fascination with languages.

Rhoades, a Trafalgar native, started learning Hindi two years ago. He had seen a movie in Hindi and thought he would never be able to speak the language. He began learning the language to challenge himself. He also is learning Arabic at IUPUC.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he plans to teach English for a year, possibly in India, China or Saudi Arabia, before returning to the U.S. for graduate work.

His advice for language learners: Speak the language out loud. You can’t expect to learn the language by just reading it and repeating words in your head, Rhoades said.

And don’t worry about making grammatical errors when conversing while talking to native speakers.

Second phase

In years two and three of the three-year grant, Redick will study whether certain types of training can improve one’s fluid intelligence or ability to multitask or learn a language.

So far, he remains skeptical, despite numerous products that are being advertised as improving one’s brain functions.

“(Evidence for) claims that things like intelligence can be improved ... are pretty much lacking,” he said.

Studies have shown only that people who have gone through some brain training believe their capabilities have improved, although they really had not.

Nonetheless, Redick said, it would be interesting to find certain types of training that could actually improve one’s abilities to learn a language.

He said that as an undergraduate he developed an interest in cognitive psychology.

And although he has limited foreign-language capabilities, he wishes he had learned French, in part because one of his grandmothers was born in France.

He said he tells his students all the time that research suggests that the earlier one starts learning another language, whether French, Arabic or sign language, the more likely one is to master the language. And, he said, data also suggest that people who learn a second language early perform better on creativity and problem-solving tests.

Redick said he and his wife, Amanda, a certified translator, have taken some of those findings to heart and have introduced their children to some Spanish at a young age.

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