The Fall of Multi-Tasking



By 08/29/2009

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What’s happened to multi-tasking?

Not so long ago people were trumpeting multi-tasking as a new way of learning and behaving, one that was rewiring our brains.  While books and math problems and historical maps involved a single cognitive exercise, it was said, the computer screen offered multiple engagements at once, and it thereby imposed a stronger “cognitive workout” on the user.

Children and teens were at the forefront of the practice, we were told, developing mental habits that teachers would soon have to master if they were going to keep up with their own students.  Here’s Eugene Hickok, former Deputy Secretary of Education, cited in a Federation of American Scientists report on the educational benefits of video games:

“The MTV generation is a different generation.  As my old boss used to say, ‘They’re wired differently.’  They think differently, they act differently, they want to be engaged, they’re more engaged than ever before, their attention span is quicker, they are not inclined to sit down and spend hours quietly reading a book.  They’re more inclined to be reading three or four books at one time while they multi-task on their Palm Pilots.”

Anybody believe that line about reading three or four books at once?

It’s the multi-tasking claim that really stands out, though.  For over the last several years studies have come out that dispel the very idea.  Way back in 2001, this report claimed that people don’t really multi-task.  They switch-task.  It turns out that people can’t do two things at once that exercise the same parts of the brain.  Sure, they can more or less read a book while listening to music (if it stays in the background), but they can’t watch TV while reading a book (both of them touch verbal centers).  They can’t do email while talking on the phone.

Furthermore, when people switch from one task to another, they have to undergo a process of “goal shifting” and “rule activation.”  That is, they can’t just move from one task to another without first adjusting to the goals and rules of the new task.  It may be brief, but that small “warm-up” time adds up.

The process led NPR last year to announce: “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.”  Here’s what an MIT professor warned:

“‘People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,’ said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, ‘The brain is very good at deluding itself.’”

And here is a story at CNN that declares “Drop that BlackBerry! Multitasking may be harmful.”  It cites a new study that “suggests that people who often do multiple tasks in a variety of media — texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more — do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way.”

So let’s hear no more about the marvelous cognitive leaps of kids with six chats going at once.

And now, if we can only dispense with those headlong celebrations of ”non-linear thinking.”




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  • George Mitchell says:

    At NPR’s website you can find an interview with one of the Stanford professors who conducted the research. My wife exulted at learning she was not lame after all.

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