Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Focus Is a Trait That Improves With Age

• December 04, 2012 • 5:50 PM

Surgeons in training need both to hone their chops–and improve their concentration.

In the new James Bond movie, there’s a testy exchange between the wizened superspy and the young man he’s just discovered is his new Q. “Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” Q says to Bond, who retorts, “And youth is no guarantee of innovation.”

A surgeon performs a simulated gall bladder removal. (PHOTO: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY)

Googling how often that quote, or parts of it, shows up online suggests Bond won that particular exchange. Age wins another point in the operating room. New research finds that novice surgeons do a poorer job of filtering out distractions than it’s thought do the old pros, and being distracted can mean making a serious, or even deadly, mistake.

In an innovative experiment rigged by members of the industrial engineering faculty at Oregon State University and the general surgery faculty at the Oregon Health and Science University, 18 second-, third- and research-year surgical residents were asked to remove a gall bladder using a minimally invasive technique known as laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

As a release from OSU explains:

While the young surgeons, ages 27 to 35, were trying to perform this delicate task, a cell phone would ring, followed later by a metal tray clanging to the floor. Questions would be posed about problems developing with a previous surgical patient—a necessary conversation—and someone off to the side would decide this was a great time to talk about politics, a not-so-necessary, but fairly realistic distraction.

In eight of the 18 of the operations with distractions coming at critical junctures, “major surgical errors” were committed, compared to just one in 18 when there were no planted distractions. Those errors—damage to arteries, bile ducts, or other organs—can be fatal.

If you’re still holding your breath worrying about the subjects of those surgeries, relax. The surgeons were working on a virtual reality simulator and not real patients, something the study’s authors concede was a principal, if necessary, limitation. And the volume of distractions was also greater than might be expected in real life.

Engineering professor Robin Feuerbacher suggested that older surgeons were less likely to be jarred. “Human factors research indicates that experienced task performers are more tolerant of distractions and can better manage interruptions,” wrote Feuerbacher, the lead author of the paper that appeared in the journal Archives in Surgery. And distractions, whether at the scalpel or the behind the wheel, are always with us.

“We’ve presented these findings at a surgical conference and many experienced surgeons didn’t seem too surprised by the results,” Feuerbacher was quoted by OSU. “It appears working through interruptions is something you learn how to deal with, and in the beginning you might not deal with them very well.”

Nonetheless, continuing research will examine whether that age hypothesis proves accurate.

Looking over their results, the researchers found that the side conversation about the earlier patient resulted in the most mistakes, followed by the chit-chat about politics. Unexpectedly, all the eight serious errors logged occurred in afternoon surgeries, although not all the residents started their shifts at the same time. The authors wondered if the “statistically significant result” could be attributable to daily rhythms, whether the doctors ate lunch of if they quaffed any caffeine.

In a second part of the experiment, the young docs were asked to memorize something important that they were expected to announce near the end of the operation. Ten of the distracted surgeons forgot, compared to four of the uninterrupted ones.

While the research clearly shows that engineering a distraction-proof operating room is important, it also reinforces the idea that experience matters.

As Judi Dench’s M quoted Tennyson during one of the non-exploding scenes in Skyfall:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though/

We are not now that strength which in old days/

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are… /

One equal temper of heroic hearts,/

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.