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

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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