On December 5th, 2017 we learned about

Pigeons parsing time and space suggest that our brains might not be as special as we thought

Thanks to a test of pigeons’ sense of space and time, researchers may be casting doubts on the evolution of human brains. That’s not a knock on the people studying pigeons— these birds are capable of a lot, right down to helping diagnose cancer. The issue is that the birds seem to have a quirk in their perception that has previously only been seen in primates like us. It’s been understood to be tied to the specific structures in our brain that assist with processing spatial and temporal information, but that can’t be the case with these pigeons, because their brains simply don’t have any of the structures in question.

How long is a line, and how long does it last?

The first phase of this test trained pigeons to watch a screen, and then poke a response on a touch screen in order to earn a snack. When looking at a two-inch line and a nine-inch line, they needed to select the longer option. When lines were flashed on the screen for either two or eight seconds, the birds needed to choose the shape shown for the longer duration. This was nothing to sneeze at, but it was only the training for the real testing in phase two.

Once the pigeons seemed comfortable with looking for lengthy lines for longer time periods, researchers complicated their task by mixing in more intermediate choices. Instead of the seven-inch difference between the first sets of lines, the birds now had to consider lines that were only off by one inch. The attribute that was being tested was also less clear, with length and duration both being tested at random. This forced the birds to really pay attention to both space and time, which lead to some interesting blurred lines in their perception.

As the pigeons progressed, a pattern emerged that showed how their brains handled this spatial and temporal information. When the birds saw a longer line, they were also likely to react to it as if it were on screen longer. The reverse was true as well, with lines displayed for longer amounts of time apparently appearing lengthier to the pigeons as well. It may sound strange on paper, but as a primate you’re probably more familiar with this than you might think, as we do this too. The major difference is that we do it thanks to both types of information being processed in the same place in our brains— the parietal cortex in our cerebral cortex. Without such a structure to mash that information together, why does pigeon perception seem to work the same way?

Explaining the overlap in pigeon perception

There are two hypotheses at this point, and both of them reduce the prestige of a primate’s parietal cortex. The first hypothesis is that pigeons, and probably other birds as well, evolved similar cognitive abilities independently of mammals, essentially reproducing what our primate brains do in these tests, right down to the errors. This kind of functional overlap does occur in what’s called convergent evolution, but not usually to this degree of specificity. The strikingly similar overlap in pigeons’ spatial and temporal perception has with primates seems unlikely to have occurred by chance, particularly without any clear evolutionary benefit to promote its growth in two family trees.

The second explanation is that this mental circuitry evolved once, long ago in a common ancestor, and bird and mammal brains have just packed it into different structures in our brains. So instead of using a parietal cortex, those circuits, quirks and all, were packed into birds’ palliums instead. The catch here is that mammals haven’t shared an ancestor with birds for millions of years, meaning this specialized perception has been getting passed down through a lot of different species, well beyond the chimpanzees and pigeons we’ve tested. Since the underlying structure that handles this thinking might not be exclusive to primates, it suggests that some of our amazing cognition just needs to be properly tested in other animals.

Source: Pigeons can discriminate both space and time, Iowa Now

On November 30th, 2017 we learned about

Overactive olfactory abilities provide clues about people who can’t understand their own emotions

Many nursery rhymes are meant to teach simple lessons, but “If you’re happy and you know it” may also be a step towards diagnosing a neurological disorder. While most toddlers are probably more concerned with learning the order of hand-clapping and foot-stomping, the simple song’s question about knowing when you’re happy is actually a significant challenge for people with alexithymia. There’s a range of symptoms in alexithymic people, but they mostly revolve around difficulty identifying one’s own emotional state, from understanding what is being felt to figuring out how to express those feelings to others. Weirdly, the other major symptom associated with alexithymia was recently discovered to be an altered sense of smell, which may prove to be useful in understanding the neurology behind the condition.

Connecting odor and emotion

The nexus of smell and emotional awareness seems to be tied to where some of this mental processing takes place in the brain. Previous studies found that there was overlap in some of the brain areas that handle emotion and olfactory perception, prompting researchers to look at how alexithymic people might experience smell differently than the general population. If a pattern could be detected, it would hopefully shed light on the relationship between emotional and olfactory understanding, and why that overlap might exist in the first place.

The experiments divided alexithymic participants into various sub-groups. For instance, some people were found to struggle with identifying emotions to themselves, while others only had problems describing those emotions to others, and everyone operated on a spectrum of how severe the symptoms were. Once sorted, volunteers were asked to sniff and rate various smells from Sniffin’ Sticks, which are standardized odor samples for these kinds of experiments. Since reactions to many odors are specific to a person’s cultural background, researchers tried to avoid getting people’s opinions on smells. Instead, they asked them about how strong smells were while measuring physiological responses, such as heart rate and breathing, to each scent.

Doing less with more

The pattern that emerged was about as intuitive as the overlap between odor and emotional perception as a whole. People who had more severe alexithymia symptoms also had more acute senses of smell, detecting smaller traces of scents than people who had an easier time parsing their emotions. Instead of facing confusion because of muted odor and emotional response, researchers now believe that these people may have a hard time making sense of emotions because of an overwhelming amount of activity. If the olfactory and emotional centers in the brain are activated constantly, getting the signal from all that noise likely becomes difficult, leaving people with fewer cues about when exactly to clap their hands or stomp their feet, even if they can smell them across a room.

Source: The nose reveals our relationship with our emotions, EurekAlert!

On November 12th, 2017 we learned about

The brain activity that can lead to seemingly irrational cost comparisons

In the book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out numerous scenarios where people reliably make illogical choices related to money or other measurements of value. For example, most of us would stop to consider spending an additional 75 cents to get a pen with a one dollar notebook, but wouldn’t blink before spending an extra ten dollars for an unnecessary drawstring bag to go with a five-hundred dollar phone. On the surface, closely scrutinizing the cheaper pen while not thinking about the more expensive bag makes no sense, apparently stemming from a weird quirk of the human brain that leads to weird allocations of resources and exploitation by marketers. Neuroscientists have dug a bit deeper though, revealing the benefit of this seemingly illogical thought pattern.

From an economics standpoint, this truly is illogical behavior. In theory, we’d be better served if we scrutinized our purchases based on their individual costs, and how much value they might provide. The cost of other purchases shouldn’t matter, unless we’re trying to build a budget. Our brains obviously don’t work this way though, and seem to decide if something is affordable or costly based on the costs of related purchases, which can of course throw off our sense of economic perspective.

Monkeys judging juices

For better or for worse, this kind of thinking has been built into primates for a long time. Monkeys picking between apple and grape juice had their brain activity monitored to figure out exactly what happens in our brain when we’re making a decisions like this. When something desirable is being considered, sets of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex start firing faster and faster. So when a monkey was choosing between apple and grape juice, it’s neurons worked faster when concentrating on the apple juice. When the portions of each juice were shifted, such as a smaller cup of apple juice or a larger cup of grape juice, the neurons adjusted their firing rates, seemingly weighing the pros and cons of either choice.

The catch is that these neurons can only fire so many times a second. If a cup of apple juice is more exciting than a cup of grape, you might see one group firing 500 times per second. When looking at 10 cups of apple juice to one cup of grape juice, it’s a significantly more attractive offer for the monkey, but those cells can still only fire 500 times a second. Since brains can’t scale their response to every value proposition, the scale has to be adjusted constantly. For choices that are close in value, this 0-500 scale can be fairly fine-grained and precise. On the other hand, when comparing choices with a big gap in values, like a bag and a phone, the scale is sort of maxed-out, and the comparisons have to be more like crude estimations rather than careful evaluations.

Sliding scales help preserve our preferences

The upside of all this is that quantity doesn’t always drown out quality. In the case of the monkeys, huge portions of less desirable grape juice never completely eclipsed the monkey’s preference for apple juice. The neurons couldn’t make the most nuanced decisions in those circumstances, but the apple juice always held some value in the monkey’s mind. Assuming monkeys like the apple juice for a healthy reason, this system can ensure that they, and by extension we, don’t end up ignoring options that really matter to us, even if they’re less abundant. It may not be the calculation an economist would come up with on paper, but this neurological circuit can truly work in our favor, allowing for some unnecessary accessories along the way.

Source: Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish Decisions Explained By Neurons’ Firing, Scienmag

On November 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Accuracy and timing can improve when we engage our brain’s autopilot

You’re always at your best when in a state of focused determination, right? Everyone from coaches to fictional movie heroes push the idea that no matter how good we are at something, we’ll be even better if we concentrate on doing it as hard as we can! I feel like I regularly nag my kids about paying attention to their own efforts at all times to avoid being lazy or distracted. This all seems logical because we’ve been under appreciating the abilities of our brain’s default mode network (DMN).

The DMN can be thought of as your brain’s autopilot mode. It was first discovered when people were waiting in brain scanners without any task at hand to concentrate on. What caught researchers’ attention was that instead of seeing a completely idle brain, a specific hunk of neurons was unusually active. When the conscious mind was at rest, this structure seemed to still be busy, and not with autonomic functions like regulating heart beats or body temperatures. We know the DMN is active in infants and mice, but researchers are still piecing together when and how it works.

Switching to playing passively

A recent experiment found a way to activate the brain activity that seems to only take place in passive people. Volunteers in an fMRI had their brains monitored while they figured out a simple card game. They were presented with four cards with different markings, then told to match a fifth card to one of the first four. To give their brains something to really work on, people weren’t told if they needed to match colors, shapes or quantities, but after some trial and error everyone figured it out and continued the task easily enough.

Around the time people figured out the puzzle of the game, they switched over from their frontal cortices to their DMN. Without the question to answer, they could basically complete the simple matching game on autopilot, thanks to the basic, repetitive nature of the task. Interestingly, when they were no longer focusing on the game, they could actually make matches faster and more accurately. The DMN apparently learned the task well enough that it could carry on without tripping itself up in a way that the more probing parts of our brains aren’t used to.

Advantages of autopilot

Researchers speculate that this may play a role in what is sometimes referred to as being “in the zone,” or a “flow state.” Something that has been practiced and mastered to a degree doesn’t need to be consciously reexamined as you do it, and so activities like playing an instrument, knitting or swimming with a specific stroke might be done more smoothly if your DMN is running the show.

The fMRI tests found that people with more neuronal density in their DMN showed even more gains in their performance when they switched into autopilot mode. This is naturally leading to questions about how people can actively develop this relaxed, more automatic style of thinking to build up what their DMN can handle.

Source: Your autopilot mode is real – now we know how the brain does it by Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist

On October 31st, 2017 we learned about

Our brains count calories when calculating how strongly food can break our concentration

As I write this, my kitchen is bursting with muffins, cookies and of course, Halloween candy. I haven’t had much to eat this evening, which is making the candy occupy a bigger part of my attention. Researchers have found that this sense of distraction seems to be hard-wired into us, as study participants have shown that even seeing what was called a “high energy snack,” like a muffin or candy bar, breaks our attention on other tasks. It doesn’t mean that we have to surrender our self-control to every piece of candy we see, but that our dietary needs can make us more distractable if our energy levels are low.

Anyone who has made the mistake of grocery shopping on an empty stomach knows how hunger can influence your decision making. These studies then look at the moments before you leave for the store- the time when you should be focused entirely on something else. For example, when asked to listen and respond to lists of words, we all respond faster to terms that can be associated with food. This shows how potentially grumbly tummies can make a difference in activities that don’t any contextual relationship with eating itself.

Counting calories very quickly

Newer studies have found even more nuance to our stomach’s grip on our brains. While categorizing symbols based on digits or letters on a screen, test participants were randomly shown brief flashes of different foods. The food was shown quickly enough to avoid breaking people’s concentration, but there was measurable difference in how people performed immediately afterwards. If the snack shown was a “low energy” food like celery, participants weren’t nearly as distracted as they were after seeing a calorie-rich cookie. So not only do we tune in on food in an instant, but we also quickly asses just how satisfying that snack may be.

A follow-up to this test looked at how empty stomachs might make this effect even stronger. While some test participants did the test without eating, others were fed two “fun-sized” candy bars. Complicating things further, new images were occasionally shown to participants in place of the low-calorie food items. So instead of carrots or celery, people might see of people making emotionally-charged expressions, like extreme fear or disgust. Humans have a hard time ignoring anything that even resembles a face, but apparently nothing beats a cupcake if we’re hungry. People who ate candy before the test were less enthralled by the photos of food, but the hungry participants could even ignore upset-looking people in comparison to a view of cake or muffins.

Apologies to anyone reading all this before meal time. If you’re still not feeling a bit peckish at this point, it probably means that you’re still feeling well-fed. For the rest of us, there may be some candy bars around here somewhere…

Source: Sidetracked by a donut?, EurekAlert!

On October 25th, 2017 we learned about

Identifying the age when kids can appreciate the purpose of practice

I feel like quite the broken record these days, endlessly reminding my kids that the best way to get better at something, from singing to swimming, is to practice. The more times you do a cartwheel, for example, the more your brain can reinforce the nuances that make on cartwheel more successful than the previous, requiring less concentration for future attempts. Of course, while I’ve gotten a lot of practice talking about how this works, the quick “I know, Daddy” replies make me wonder if my efforts are having much effect. If I stopped with the supposed pep-talks about persevering, would the kids ever come to these conclusions themselves?

A study from Australia looked at that idea from the perspective of children’s ages. They wanted to know if there was a developmental threshold for kids to understand that practicing skills could benefit them in the future. Or, even if they didn’t get it on a conscious level, would they still try to practice without being specifically told to do so?

The experiment started with a single child and three games. Each game required some specific motor skills to play, and the kids were told that they’d be tested one specific game in the near future with the chance to win stickers if they did well. They were then shown to another room where three replicas of the first games were waiting. At that point, the kids were left to their own devices for five minutes, knowing they’d soon be headed back to the first set of games for their test. With all these elements in place, the question was then which replica game each kid would choose to spend their time on.

Building skills at age four versus six

As you might expect, six- and seven-year-olds showed the most interest in preparation for their upcoming test. While all the replica games were inspected, older kids spent more time playing with the replica that corresponded to the test game later. When asked about this explicitly afterwards, these kids all seemed aware of their choices, and how they expected to do better as a result. To really drive the deliberate nature of their plans home, these kids could generally give solid definitions of what practicing is and why someone would do it, undoubtedly making their parents’ day in the process.

Understanding that preparing for a challenge with practice was a sensible option scaled with each kid’s age. Five-year-olds played with the game that would help them practice the skills they needed more than the others, but they couldn’t consciously elaborate on why, claiming that the game was selected for other reasons. Four-year-olds missed the setup entirely, showing no preference for the game that they’d be tested on. This gradient didn’t really surprise researchers, as it fits with other child development milestones like metacognition and episodic foresight, wherein a child can imagine specific outcomes based on a given scenario.

Confirming behavior patterns most parents and teachers are aware of may not be terribly sensational, but it should help educators design tasks and challenges that are better suited to young kids. Talking about future goals may not be the best strategy with a four-year-old, but a lesson or activity for six-year-olds should be fine.


My third grader said: Maybe the five-year-olds really didn’t understand practice. Maybe they picked the right game because the scientists were using the best toy and the kids just liked it more.

That’s a pretty fair concern, and presumably the experiment could be designed where the designated “test game” was picked at random for each child so that one game wouldn’t stand out over all the others in every trial. Along those lines, I wonder if the act of an authority figure simply pointing out which game would be tested primed the five-year-olds’ interest, making it stand out to them for reasons they didn’t really understand.

Then again, when I asked my own four-year-old about practice before he heard this story, he was able to say that it was “doing something so that you get better at it,” which means younger kids can get the concept, or at least listen carefully enough to have an idea about it.

Source: Starting at age 6, children spontaneously practice skills to prepare for the future, Science Daily

On October 22nd, 2017 we learned about

Brains beat brawn in your body’s battle for metabolic resources

When running a race, lifting weights or swimming laps, the last thing you should be thinking about is math problems. Or special relativity. Or how to simplify the tax code, when you last called your mother or any other topic that might require more than minimal brain power. It’s not that these topics might take you out of “the zone” and break your rhythm, but that these thoughts all require energy to process. That energy is limited, and researchers have found that your brain will take its share first, which may leave your muscles working off your metabolic leftovers.

We’ve long known that the brain is an energetically expensive piece of anatomy. On a daily basis, our brains are estimated to demand up to 20 percent of our resting metabolic capacity even though they’re usually only two percent of our body weight. As a species we’ve prioritized our brains so much that babies’ heads barely fit through their mother’s birth canal, making childbirth a potentially dangerous endeavor. With this in mind, researchers wanted to see if we also favored our gray matter on a smaller time-scale, testing how athletes handled mental activity while simultaneously working their muscles.

Rowing while remembering

The study asked 62 rowers to do two basic tasks. First they rowed vigorously for three minutes. Then they did a short word-recall task that really only tested their memories. No real calculations or insight was needed. With these baselines for comparison, researchers asked participants to do both tasks at once. As you’d expect, the combined activities were harder than doing one at a time, but not to the same degree. While rowing made recalling words harder, those scores didn’t drop off as much as the rowing itself. When in direct competition for metabolic resources, it seem that muscles got the short end of the stick, as physical performance suffered 29 percent more than mental performance.

The metabolic tug-of-war in question is over oxygen and glucose. Skeletal muscles need a lot of those resources as well, but when both are in demand at once brains seem to get first dibs. As with the other adaptations our species has made to power our brains, it’s thought that a sharp mind must have made our ancestors more successful than fully-fueled muscles did. The average athlete probably isn’t worried about starving their muscles for the sake of their brain’s glucose supply, but avoiding this metabolic battle may be another reason to try to keep a clear head when you’re working out.

Source: ‘Selfish Brain’ Wins Out When Competing With Muscle Power, Study Finds by Danny Longman, Scienmag

On October 18th, 2017 we learned about

STEM students can, and probably should, do a bit of dancing

When my wife was a graduate student, she helped run a dance troupe, took ballet classes, and performed and help produce a campus-wide dance show. The program ran over an hour, featuring everything from hula to ballroom, lyrical to… something approximating hip-hop. These performers probably weren’t going to give up their day jobs, but they all looked pretty amazing considering their day jobs had them working in some of the world’s most prestigious research labs across a huge range of fields. Nobody questioned the value of dance in these scientists’ lives, and the school community was very supportive of the show each year. A more formalized study from North Carolina State University has come to similar, if more specific conclusions. Even top-notch biochemists benefit from time on the dance floor.

Finding balance with ballet or ballroom

The study was framed against the multitude of calls for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. As technology continues to shape our economies and capabilities, STEM proponents feel that students need to be more thoroughly prepared to have an active role in those fields, or else risk falling behind. However, focus shouldn’t mean ignoring other activities, and it seems that students from all disciplines, including STEM, can improve their lives by participating in creative arts like a dance troupe or class.

The pattern that emerged through surveys and interviews was that dance was both complementary and supplementary to academic work. Rehearsing a specific dance for a class or possible performance requires, and reinforces, self-discipline that is crucial for any form of research. Students reported dance helped them work with larger groups, and it was easier to incorporate multiple viewpoints into their thinking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that dance can be fun, allowing for personal expression and a sense of community, all without the need for a keg of beer. Researchers hope to follow up with a more quantifiable study, looking at how participating in dance affects work performance and personal health.

Mental challenges of choreographed movement

Beyond proving the value of dance in STEM-oriented environments, many previous studies have looked at how dance can benefit individual brains. The rhythmic movement has been found to trigger reward centers, which are further boosted by the accompanying music during a performance. Coordinated efforts in choreographed and spontaneous dance have been found to increase activity in the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all in order to handle planning, control and movement of the body. Some of this is likely true for other physical activities as well, but in a 2003 study, only dance classes were found to help lower participants’ risk of developing dementia. This is thought to be tied to some of the social aspects of dance that isn’t replicated in a game of golf, for instance.

Where does all this lead us? To Dance Your PhD, of course.

Source: How Dance Can Help Students in STEM Disciplines by Fay Cobb Payton and Matt Shipman, NC State News

On October 5th, 2017 we learned about

Mindfulness exercises prove effective when they aim to relieve specific stresses

If watching a hockey game, on television from the comfort of your own home, can nearly double your body’s stress levels, it seems reasonable to assume that you can calm down by basically doing the opposite. Sitting calmly, meditation and sometimes vaguely defined “mindfulness” are being touted as cures for stress, but researchers wanted to figure out exactly what mechanisms might be making a difference. “Stress” on it’s own is such a broad term that three separate experiments were devised to more specifically measure what mindfulness might be doing for your brain.

Attention to self-awareness

The first exercise focused on self-awareness, or mindfulness. The idea was that paying attention to your own breathing, hunger and heart rate would eventually train your brain to be better at focusing and dealing with external distractions. After three months of practice, participants were tested in a variety of scenarios, having their brain activity measured as well to try and find a specific change in the brain that might account for the feelings of self-improvement reported by people who may have unconsciously been trying to justify sitting in silence for three hours each week.

In fact, there was measurable changes, both in participant’s test results and brain scans. People did better on tasks testing their attention spans, and showed more activity in their medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with executive decision-making. This meditation practice wasn’t a cure-all though, as these exercises didn’t seem to change how people handled other stresses, like dealing with difficult social interactions.

Specific exercises for social stress

This wasn’t a huge surprise to researchers. Just as you wouldn’t expect bicep curls to tone your calves, practicing certain mental challenges don’t necessarily change your whole brain at once. Further supporting this slightly departmentalized model, researchers had people flex other parts of their thinking processes. One exercise asked people to share brief personal stories with a partner, including both positive and negative aspects of earlier experiences. A third exercise had them talk with a partner from a particular, internal point of view, like one’s inner child, then ask your partner to guess what perspective was being shared.

As with the first mindfulness exercises, practicing sharing and listening with another person was found to make a difference, specifically when challenged by emotional social encounters. So sharing feelings about a story didn’t improve one’s concentration, but it did make giving a giving a short presentation in front of an audience easier, lowering heart rates and boosting activity in a brain region called the insula.

On one hand, these tests poke holes in claims that one practice can improve every aspect of one’s mental life, which fits with what we’ve known about physical training for ages. On the other hand, it means that just like you can focus on specific exercises at the gym, you can also give extra attention to areas of your emotional life you want to improve on. Like being aware of your heart rate during a hockey game.

Source: Mental Training Exercises Can Alter Your Brain and Reduce Stress by Lucy Jordan, Seeker

On September 26th, 2017 we learned about

Densely-packed pigeon brains out-perform humans at task-switching tests

Mammals have incredible, complicated, calorie-hungry brains. Portions of gray matter specialize in everything from counting to memory to detecting what may or may not be a spider in our visual field. Even with all this specialization, our brains are also quite flexible, taking on new tasks if other cells are somehow unable to do their original job. There’s a lot to be proud of in that skull of yours, especially since it’s almost a quick as what you find in pigeons.

Simplicity vs. sophistication?

Now, pigeons and other birds don’t have all the complex structures you find in mammal cortex, but it hardly seems to slow them down. Crows, for instance, are known to lack the neocortex that mammals like humans use to count objects, but they still handle quantities better than many other animals. This was of interest to researchers, who wanted to figure out exactly how well bird brains measured up to a human’s six layers of cortical tissue.

The head-to-head test specifically looked at how well pigeons and people could multitask. In one round of tests, participants had to quickly switch from one task to another. In this case, the goal was to transition as smoothly and immediately as possible, to the point that one mental process literally took place at the same time as the other. Both humans and pigeons showed some slowdown with this challenge, since brains were juggling twice the amount of work they were comfortable with. The second round of tests was similar, but included an intentional break in the middle of the switch-over to allow brains to end one process before starting the other. Changing focus like that probably doesn’t feel too messy, but requires a bit of back-and-forth coordination between neurons to work correctly.

Neuronal density and distances

This is where the pigeon brains really shined. The period of mental coordination to fully switch over to a new task was 250 milliseconds shorter in the birds, meaning their brains were somehow handling this process faster than our more complex noggins. That may not sound like an impressive margin, but considering your brain only needs 600 milliseconds to think of and pronounce a word with proper declension, 250 milliseconds is nothing to scoff at.

Researchers suspect that the pigeons edge boils down to something as simple as proximity. Bird brains have been found to be around twice as dense as mammal brains, meaning they have twice the neurons per cubic inch of gray matter that we do. This is probably how birds are able to pull of their cognitive feats without all our brain structures, and as the pigeons demonstrated, do some of them faster. In the case of task switching, the densely-packed neurons would be closer together, and so each synaptic transmission would need to cover less distance. In aggregate, that would add up to a speedier transit time per thought, letting pigeons shift their focus faster than we can.

Source: Pigeons better at multitasking than humans, EurekAlert!