Time to Think
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Time to Think

As a task becomes more complex, it requires more mental effort—and that takes time.
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At this exhibit, you can test your reaction time in three different scenarios—each requiring an increasing amount of thought. In the process, you can actually measure the time it takes your brain to accomplish the extra work of making a (fast) decision. The extra time it takes to think before acting—or not acting—is perhaps no surprise. For hockey goalies and gamers alike, practice, practice, practice is the key to shaving precious fractions of a second from any performance requiring both speed and speedy decisions. Studies on reaction time confirm another thing you might already suspect: Age matters. You are at your speediest in your mid-twenties. After that, it’s a gentle downhill slide, reaction time–wise, until about age seventy, when the downhill slide steepens.
But take heart, oldsters: A slower reaction time doesn’t necessarily mean slower overall performance. Research on older typists showed that though their finger speed sagged, their overall typing speed did not, likely due to improved “motor preparation,” that is, an ability to look ahead and anticipate. Gender, too, matters: While males are on average 10–20 milliseconds faster to react, females are more accurate. Lefties, athletes, and musicians also enjoy slight speed benefits.

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