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Business, Society - Written by on Wednesday, September 2, 2009 11:35 - 6 Comments

Tim Bevins
Multitasking May Not Be All That Good for You

My son multitasked his way through high school and into the mechanical engineering program at a very good university not far from home. Whenever I walked past him at the computer while he was in high school – he used the living room for his “office,” so I did get the chance to walk past him – I admit to having worried at times about his brain on the simultaneous combination of World of Warcraft, calculus homework, continuous IM’ing on AOL, and checking weird and sometimes creepy videos on eBaum’s World. But he’s managed to stay on the Dean’s List for all four semesters at college so far and landed a nice first coop job at a pretty cool, very innovative engineering company. So, I should stop worrying about that multitasking way of life, right?

Stanford University researchers might advise me not to. In research findings published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner say that multitasking is bad for your brain and that multitaskers are actually not so good at multitasking. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them,” Ness says in an article published by the Stanford News Service. The researchers conclude that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,” writes Adam Gorlick of the news service.

The Stanford researchers tested some 100 students. For each test, they split test subjects into two groups: people who regularly do a lot of media multitasking (“heavy multitaskers”) and those who don’t (“light multitaskers”). In every test, the heavy multitaskers group performed poorly and lagged significantly the light multitaskers group. In the first test, although told to ignore certain images, they could not and were easily distracted by them. The groups were tested for memory capabilities. Subjects simply had to say when a letter in a sequence was repeated. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains,” according to Eyal Ophir.

The subjects were then tested to see how well the two groups did in switching from one task to another. They were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and told what to focus on. For numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd; for letters, they had to identify vowels or consonants. The heavy multitaskers’ overall performance again was miserable and lagged significantly the light multitaskers.

While the researchers say they still need to study whether the heavy media multitaskers are innately unable to concentrate or are, in fact, damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once, they are convinced the heavy multitaskers’ minds are not working as well as they could. “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” reports Anthony Wagner. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Okay, so the research is not complete, and there may be other, unidentified explanations for the poor performance of admitted heavy media multitaskers on these tests. It may also be that all these folks just had a bad day or that there are other components at work such as learning problems in the heavy multitaskers that predisposes them to need to do several things at once. I cannot explain why my son managed to manage several things at once, apparently successfully enough; I also cannot say, however, how much better he might have done by simply doing one thing at a time or perhaps no more than two things simultaneously. All I can say is, the fact that he – and many, many other people – can multitask does not mean that they should.


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Mark Drapeau
Sep 2, 2009 12:42

I’m not sure I understand this article, but I’ll go back and read it again when I’m not driving (and changing this diaper).

Sep 3, 2009 8:54

I think the real study of interest to me would be answering this question: given the opportunity to heavily multi-task versus lightly, on those things that an individual (student, professional, whatever) chooses, are they able to be more “successful” in those activities that are measureable and of value to them over some significant period of time? Yeah, I know, a pretty hard study to set up, but I think that’s the real issue at its core. Is the net generation, which as Don would say is the first in history to be bathed in bits,” in a better position to be successful because their brains and work habits are wired for a more multi-task driven environment, or not?

Sep 3, 2009 9:14

Steve, here are a couple of interesting links that kind of address your question: http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/081015_gary-small-ibrain.aspx and http://searchengineland.com/dr-teena-moody-chatting-about-our-brains-on-google-16728. This piece – from Wired, “Digital Overload is Frying Our Brains” (that title sets the scene) – is an interview with Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, who makes a case for the downside of all our multitasking. There is also a lot out there on the topic of continuous partial attention (http://www.lindastone.net/), which is differentiated from multitasking; Linda Stone’s website is a good starting place for that.
My personal, and anecdote-based, opinion is that you may be talking about a bigger concept: flow, “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.”

Sep 3, 2009 9:16

Sorry – here is the link to the Wired piece: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/02/attentionlost/

Sep 11, 2009 14:42

I find interest in the inherent bias we see in Tim’s final remarks: “I also cannot say, however, how much better he might have done by simply doing one thing at a time or perhaps no more than two things simultaneously. All I can say is, the fact that he – and many, many other people – can multitask does not mean that they should.” Tim’s son may have actually performed worse as a light multi-tasker, but this was not mentioned in his essay.

Some folks need a certain level of stimulation to maintain function and overall global interest in activities. Whether or not they complete them may not be the goal of the brain that is multi-tasking. Maintaining a certain level of cortical arousal may actually be the inherent goal; not performing a specific task.

Sep 11, 2009 18:47

I’ll add another couple of elements here, admittedly tangential: I find I come up with solutions to problems, or potential solutions, more often when I am not thinking about them but am engaged in some other activity, such as driving a car or working in the yard. Direct attack on some problems or ideas is less effective for me when I am doing it alone; however, when stimulated by conversation with other people on a problem, I am more creative. The former is not really multitasking, more like getting away from the stress of having to find a solution to see it from another, clearer perspective. The latter is commonplace: up to an unspecified limit, which might vary, having people collaborating is almost always more effective, presuming they are not doing so for egotistical purposes, such as to show off or be right (but I guess that is not really collaboration).

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