Here come the supertaskers

New technologies and social media are training up the next generation of superbrains, but are young

Young people today are dangerously self-obsessed, over-cosseted and computer-addled - or so the media would have us believe. Recent science stories seem to confirm popular concerns about the feckless brains of Generation Whatever (to use the latest label). But we are not getting the whole story.

On 29 May, British newspapers rushed to report on a study by Sara Konrath, a University of Michigan researcher, showing that current college students are lacking in empathy compared to their predecessors. The study concludes that "college kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy". The biggest fall came after the year 2000 - the advent of mass connectivity - according to the survey of 14,000 personality tests over the past three decades. Konrath says that modern students are far less likely to agree with lines such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me".

Presenting their findings on 27 May, Konrath and her colleague Edward O'Brien told the US Association for Psychological Science that the rise of social media seemed to be a factor: "The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems - a behaviour that could carry over offline." Thus, "many people", Konrath said, "see the current group of college students as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and indivi­dualistic in recent history".

It is a popular impression. Not only is Generation Whatever accused of unprecedented selfishness, but we are told that it is getting increasingly stupid. Again, technology is blamed. In June, for example, a Duke University study found that having home computers and broadband lowers students' scores in reading and maths - particularly if they don't have the sort of middle-class parents who nag them to lay off the messaging and gaming.

Techy teens

But are these concerns new? "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words . . . and impatient of restraint." That was the poet Hesiod in the 8th century BC.

The human basics may have changed very little - but that does not make headlines. In March, the British media ignored a University of Western Ontario study of 477,380 high-school seniors in 1976 and 2006, which found that Generation Whatever looks very similar to youth from the mid-1970s. The main difference, said the study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that the new generation of young people has higher expectations of its education and is less trustful of government. So perhaps it cares more.

Jeroen Boschma, creative director of the advertising firm Keesie, based in Rotterdam, believes as much. He told the Spanish newspaper El País the story of how he interviewed a 17-year-old for a job and asked him a tough technical question to see how he would react. The candidate did not know the answer, but requested a minute to find out, consulted an online forum and got more than 100 informed responses from across the world.

In 2006, Boschma published the book Generation Einstein: Smarter, Faster and More Socially Aware, to loud media buzz. He believes that rapid-paced technology has imbued these so-called "digital natives" with new qualities: they challenge authority and are highly pragmatic in dealing with information. "This sets them apart from any other generation and has consequences that are by no means trivial."

Certainly, young people are politically engaged on a scale unseen since the 1960s, thanks to their ability to clamber on to the internet's global soapbox. For example, when Farouk Olu Aregbe, a recent graduate in the US, set up the One Million Strong for Obama Facebook group, it rapidly gained 820,000 members. And in Britain, pressure from a 5,000-strong Facebook group forced HSBC to stop charging interest on graduates' overdrafts.

The laptop revolutionaries can also be altruistic. Twitter and Facebook were still primarily driven by college students when these networks overwhelmed the Red Cross with millions of texted $10 gifts to Haitian earthquake relief. Digital networking, far from merely fostering passivity, has created a generation that can engage vigorously and fast. Empathy has not disappeared - it is simply taking different forms.

And it's not just empathy that is changing. The idea that the human population is developing a different kind of intelligence is another common idea. Studies by James Flynn, a professor of political studies at Otago University, New Zealand, who specialises in measuring intelligence, show a consistent rise in global IQ performance of roughly 3 per cent per decade, in some cases going back to the early 20th century. This implies that, over the past 100 years, the IQs of people (predominantly in the west) have risen by about 30 points, an observation known as the "Flynn effect".

Flynn believes that our brains have changed in recent decades because TV, computers and social networking challenge the brain in new ways and for far longer periods of time. Those challenges are developing quickly. The plotlines for The Wire are infinitely more complex than those of, say, The Good Life in the 1970s. Games such as Civilization IV re-create human economic and technological history, challenging teens to work out whether they should develop an agrarian capitalist society or a monarchy.

But Flynn argues that his "effect" does not show a genetic increase in intelligence per se. It is the product of a bias in IQ tests towards abstract-reasoning intelligence. Our brains are becoming more creative, but this is perhaps at the cost of older, everyday skills.

This theory is echoed by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. He believes the generation that has grown up using computers is having a harder time reading social cues. "Even though [they] are very good with the tech skills, they are weak with the face-to-face human contact skills," he told the New York Times in April.

Such shifts in consciousness are not without peril. Two recently published studies - by the University of California and the University of Southern California - indicate that our constant diet of digital news is beginning to move faster than our ability to make moral judgements. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering and war are consumed but may not make us indignant, compassionate or inspired.

Yet there is evidence, too, that the human brain is advancing its ability to sift informa-tion quickly. We appear to be evolving rapidly under pressure from unprecedented demands, using evolutionary mechanisms we are just beginning to understand. One is called epigenetics - a frontier science that is revealing how the changes we experience in our brains during our lives do not simply go to the grave with us, but can be passed on to our offspring.

Scientists are also discovering that the brain retains high levels of plasticity throughout our lives, particularly if we keep challenging it with new learning.

Speed-freaks

Tomorrow's people may already be buzzing away among us. They will include the "supertaskers". For most of us, multitasking is tough. Trials show that it tends to result in two things done poorly rather than one done well. But one in 40 people appears immune to this problem. These lucky speed-freaks can, for example, drive and talk on a mobile phone at the same time without loss of concentration on either task, according to tests on 200 people by the Utah University psychologist Jason Watson.

Supertaskers constitute only 2.5 per cent of the population, Watson believes. But even that level is surprisingly high. "According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," he says in a paper soon to be published by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Further research into supertaskers may reveal how the multitasking regions of their brains are different, due to some inherited variation. Watson predicts that employers in high-performance professions will want to screen for genetic markers of supertasking ability. Generation Whatever's multi-mediated brains may be the key to our ever-faster future.

But even in a hyper-accelerated culture, someone is going to have to pay close attention to socially indispensable matters such as law, politics, academia and medicine - disciplines that demand conscientiousness and a gimlet eye for mono-tasking detail. Old-brainers, the over-thirties, aren't out of business yet. So we should not be so snippy about welcoming the children of the network-minded generation, even if we don't understand their ways.

John Naish is the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue