Posts Tagged ‘Multi-Tasking’

Print vs. Screen or Digital Media

October 20, 2018

What is most bothersome about “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf is the way she contrasts print media versus the new screen or digital media. Readers might mistakenly think that the solution to this problem is to use print media and eschew screen or digital media. The reality is that in the future this might be impossible as conventional print media might be found only in museums or special libraries. But what is key to understanding is that unfortunate habits tend to develop when using screen/digital media. Moreover, the unfortunate habits are the result of a feeling of needing to be plugged in with digital media. It is these habits, skimming, superficial processing, and multi-tasking that are the true culprits here.

These same practices can be found using print matter and they are not always bad. Reading the newspaper, in either print or digital form, HM’s attention is dictated by his interests. Initially he is skimming, but when he finds something interesting he focuses his attention and reads deeply. If it turns out that he already knows the material, or that the material is a bunch of crap. He resumes skimming. This is the reason he does not like televised news since it includes material he would like to ignore or skip over. HM finds it annoying that the phrase “Breaking News” is frequently heard. Frankly, he would prefer “Already considered and processed news.” Unless there is a natural catastrophe or some imminent danger, there is no reason the news can’t wait for further context under which it can be processed.

Frankly, HM would never have been able to complete his Ph.D, had he not developed this ability. His work is interdisciplinary, so he must read in different areas. He skims until he finds relevant material. Then he focuses and quizzes himself to assure he is acquiring the relevant material. Sometimes this might be a matter of bookmarking it with the goal of returning when there would be sufficient time to process the material. Even if the topic is one with which he is familiar, he will assess whether there is anything new that requires his attention. There is simply too much material and too little time. Strategies need to be employed. The risk from current technology is that the technology is driving the process rather than the individual using the technology effectively.

We are not victims of technology unless we passively allow ourselves to become victims of technology. Students need to be taught how to use the technology and what practices need to be abandoned. One of these is being continually plugged in, but there are also social issues that need to be addressed.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


December 2, 2017

This title is the same as a title in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits:  Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”  William James, the founder of American psychology wrote: “The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will; an education which should improve this faculty would the the education par excellence.”

At its root meditation retrains attention, and different types boost varying aspects of attention. MBSR strengthens selective attention, while long-term vipassana (analytic meditation will be described later in the series of posts) practice enhances this even more. Five months after a three-month shamantha retreat meditators had enhanced vigilance, the ability to sustain their attention. But the beginnings of this enhancement also showed up after just seventeen minutes of mindfulness in beginners. This was no doubt a transitory state for the newcomers, and a more lasting trait for the experienced meditators. The same practice-makes perfect maxim likely applies to some other quickie meditation: just ten minutes of mindfulness overcame the damage to concentration from multi-tasking—at least in the short term; only eight minutes of mindfulness lessened mind-wandering for a while. About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory. This also led to substantially improved scores on the graduate school entrance exam. Although meditation boosts many aspects of attention, these are short-term gains; more lasting benefits require ongoing practice.

Can Zombies Drive to Work?

March 20, 2016

The title of this post is identical to Chapter 2  of Elizier J. Sternberg’s “Neurologic:  The brain’s Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.”  I believe all of us who drive have had the experience of driving someplace and having no memory of the drive itself.  We might as well been a Zombie during the drive.  So there you have the answer to the question posed in the title of the chapter.  The chapter is about how our unconscious minds perform well-trained behaviors while doing something else.  Sometimes we can perform some behaviors that have not been previously practiced.  Sternberg provides an example in which a man was able to drive to a house and murder someone without having any conscious awareness of it.  Moreover, he was acquitted of murder at his trial on the grounds that he had no conscious intention of murdering someone and that all this was the result of non conscious processing.

A large part of this chapter is devoted to multi-tasking, and how we are able to multi-task.  However, he never mentions the costs of multi-tasking, and I regard this failure as being not just highly irresponsible, but dangerously irresponsible.  There have been many healthy memory posts on the dangers of multi-tasking.  Enter “multitasking” or “Strayer” into the healthy memory blog search block to find some os these posts.  Sternberg even cites some of  Strayer’s research in the chapter, but never mentions the risk of multi-tasking that is the point of Strayer’s research.

I think a distinction can be made between intentional multi-tasking and unintentional multi-tasking.  Unintentional multi-tasking is more commonly known as distraction or mind wandering.  There was an article in the February 21 Washington Post (A14) by Michael Laris titled “Why Do Metro rail operators keep running red signals?”

Red signals indicate that a train should go no further until the signal changes, just as on the road.  But according to the Federal Transit Administration there have been at least 47 “red signal” violations since the beginning of 1912.  And some of these violations ended just short of some very severe accidents.

It is important to realize that these are not incompetent or careless individuals.  If we understand how our conscious attention works, they can be quite understandable. Under one situation in which there was single tracking, the operator responded to the red signal and stopped.  He waited for the train to pass.  In most cases only one train passes.  However, in this case there was a second train.  As the operator was expecting only a single train, he ignored the red signal and proceeded and found that a second train was coming.  Fortunately, he stopped and a collision was avoided.

In another case, a novice operator out for her first run boarded a train on the wrong track.  This was her first actual day on the job and she was overwhelmed.    She gave the controller the number of the track she was on, but the controller failed to tell her that she was on the wrong train and she proceeded.  Again, the mistake was corrected before a collision occurred.

Another operator was told that a complaint had been levied against her to which she ended to respond.  This distracted and she missed the red signal.

It is not unusual for people to respond and think that they actually performed correctly., but the documented evidence is to the contrary.  Personally, I have had many such experiences where I am virtually certain that I saw or did something, but the facts indicate that I was in error.

It should be noted that similar problems trouble Transportation Security Administration  agents gazing  at X-ray images and surgeons peering into incisions.

It needs to be realized that multitasking always entails costs.  And that cost is more the the sum of the costs of the multiple tasks being performed.  There is also a cost to switching between  between or among the multiple tasks.  If the task is important, concentrate on that task and devote all your attention to it.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing the Business World

January 7, 2015

“Organizing the Business World” is another chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. It provides a nice historical overview of how organizations have developed driving down to technologies of organizations such as filing systems. There is a large amount of material, and I am going to attempt to focus on portions that I think will be of special interest to readers of the healthymemory blog.

One of these topics of interest I think will involve Area 47 in the lateral prefrontal cortex. It is an area no larger than a pinky finger that contains prediction circuits that it uses in conjunction with memory to form projections about future states of events. If we can provide some, but not all aspects of how the job will go, we find it rewarding. However, if we can predict all aspects of the job, down to the tiniest minituae, it tends to be boring because there is nothing new and no opportunity to apply discretion and judgment. Opportunities to apply discretion and judgment have been identified by management consultants and the U.S. Army as components to finding one’s work meaningful and satisfying. If some, but not too many, aspects of the job are surprising in interesting ways, this can lead to a sense of discovery and self-growth. Levitin writes that finding the right balance to keep Area 47 happy is tricky, but that most job satisfaction comes from a combination of these two. We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints.

Levitin discusses the toxic consequences of negative leadership that can result in the collapse of companies or the loss of reputation and resources. He notes that this is often the result of self-centered attitudes, a lack of empathy for others within the organization, and a lack of concern with the organization’s long-term health. The U.S.Army has recognized this in both military and civic organizations: Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish to get what they want for themselves.” The latest version of the U.S. Army’s Mission Command manual outlines five principles that are shared by commanders and top executives in the most successful multinational businesses:

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust

  • Create shared understanding

  • Provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals.

  • Allow workers at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative

  • Accept prudent risks

Levitin returns to multi-tasking in this chapter. He notes that we do not multi-task. Rather what we do is rapidly switch our attention from task to task. Consequently two bad things happen:we don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any one task. Doing one task results in beneficial changes in the brain’s daydreaming network and increased connectivity. He notes that, “Among other things, this is believed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults who engaged in five one-hour training sessions on attentional control began to show brain activity patterns that more closely resembled those of younger adults.”

So people should not be forced to multi-task. But why, then, do we multi-task ourselves? Levitin attributes this to a cognitive illusion that sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multi-taskers think they are doing great. Levitin writes that we are Balkanizing the vast resources of our prefrontal cortices, which has been honed over tens of thousands of years of evolution to stay on task. He further writes, “This stay-on-task mode is what gave us the pyramids, mathematics, great cities, literature, art, music, penicillin, and rockets to the moon. Those kinds of discoveries cannot be made in fragmented two-minute increments.

He notes that companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours, naps, a chance for exercise, and a calm, tranquil orderly environment in which to do theit work. Research has found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing Our Time When Multi-Tasking Is Required

December 17, 2014

Previous healthymemory blog posts have discussed the costs of multi-tasking. Overall task performance suffers, and there are additional costs entailed in switching between tasks. Nevertheless, there are times when some type of multitasking is unavoidable, and they are discussed in the Organizing Out Time Chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. For example, creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming. Moreover, the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias such that its attention can be easily highjacked by something new. Levitin maintains that humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we do to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty we have when trying to focus among competing activities is that the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex that wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Remember that the awareness of an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively lower your IQ by as much as 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.

Both our experience and research tells us that if we have chores to do, to put similar chores together. So if you have bills to pay, just pay the bills, don’t do anything else. Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set until the task is completed. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.

Performing most tasks requires flexible thinking and adaptiveness. The prefrontal cortex gives us the flexibility to change behavior based on context. The prefrontal cortex is necessary for adaptive strategies for daily life be it foraging for food on the savanna or living in skyscrapers in the city.

To reach our goals efficiently requires us to selectively focus on the features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, ignoring other features in the environment that our competing for our attention. What distinguishes experts from novices is that experts no which features are important and require attention.

We encode information in meaningful chunks, To manage our time efficiently we must organize and segment what we see and do into chunks of activity. Levitin uses Superman to illustrate this point. He might tell Lois Lane, “I’m off to save the world, honey,” but what he tells himself is the laundry list of chunked tasks that need to be done t accomplish that goal, each with a well-defined beginning and ending. (1. Capture Lex Luther. 2. Dispose of Kryptonite safely. 3. Hurl ticking time bomb into outer space. 4. Pick up clean cape from the dry cleaner). Chunking performs two important functions. It renders large-scale projects doable by providing well-differentiated tasks, and renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them into well-defined beginnings and endings. This allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable chunks.

The dedicated portion of our brains that partitions long events into chunks is in the prefrontal cortex. Hierarchies are created of this event segmentation without our thinking about them, and without instructing our brains to make them. We can review these representation in our mind’s eye from either direction—from the top down, from large time scales to small, or from bottom up, from small time scales to large. So, we should use our prefrontal cortex to best advantage, avoid multi-tasking unless it is necessary, and then multi-task in a strategic manner.

Organizing Our Homes

December 7, 2014

Organizing Our Homes is the title of a chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. His subtitle for this chapter is “Where Things Can Start to Get Better”.   I am probably more in need of the information in this chapter than any of the healthymemory blog’s readers. But my problem is primarily motivational in that although I know the systems for effective organization, but I don’t implement them. Unfortunately, Levitin does not provide any motivational advice. Perhaps one day some disaster will occur that will provide me the motivation for implementing these practices.. One practice I do strictly follow is to keep my most important items in the same place. Individual items might be in separate places, but each important item is always kept in the same place. When I travel or move to a new place, one of my first actions is to decide where these important items go. If I want to be sure to remember to take my umbrella on a given day, I place it in a conspicuous place on my way out. However, even this precautionary measure has sometimes failed.

Levitin uses the four system for remembering important items. Every time he leaves the house he checks that he has four things: keys, wallet, phone, and glasses. The number four is significant as we are constrained by the number of items we can hold in our working or short term memories. George Miller’s original number was 7 plus or minus 2. However, that number has shrunk over the years, and is currently down to four. If he needs to remember something else before leaving the house, say to remember to buy mild on the way home, he will either place an empty mild carton on the seat beside him in his car, or he’ll place the carton in his backpack. Of course a note will be do, but some reminder is needed so the note will not be forgotten.

The problem of misplacing items and being unable to find them is ubiquitous. Levitin writes about Magnus Carlsen the number one rated chess in the world when he was 23. He can keep ten games going on at once in memory without looking at the board, but he says, “I forget all kinds of other stuff. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phones,keys, and so on. Actually all of these memory failures are the result of failing to attend where the object is being placed. Moreover, enough attention needs to be devoted to the object so that the location of the object will later be remembered.

Levitin also discusses the concept of affordances. The term is used in the sense that the environment affords you to do something. One of the best examples of affordances are the plates or handles that are placed on doors. The plate affords the pushing of the door. The handle affords the pulling of the door. Unfortunately, these affordances are frequently misplaced. For example, you try to push a door that has a handle on it and it does not move. Once I was following a lady out of the building. She tried to push a handle and then apologizes for being stupid when it did not move. I explained to her that she was not the stupid. Instead it was the architect of the building or the installer of the door who was stupid. The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner elaborated on these affordances. If you have letters to mail put them near your car keys or house keys so that when you leave the house their affordance reminds you to take them. The goal is to off-load the information from your brain into the environment by using the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done. So the idea is to use the environent as a type of transactive memory.

To people who argue that they are not detailed-oriented, that they are a creative person or some such. Levitin provides some good examples from Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, John Lennon. Michael Jackson even had a person on his staff titled the chief archivist. Organization was essential to these creative people.

Levitin provides these three general rules of organization..

      1. A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.

      2. If there is an existing standard, use it.

      3. Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Personally I have much difficulty with this third rule.

Levitin devotes a section to the digital home where he recommends organizing by devices, where special devices perform special tasks. He has another section on the storage of information in different types of media and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He notes, rather discouragingly, that digital files are rarely readable for more than ten years. He notes that within the spreadsheet Excel you can link any entry in a cell to a document on the computer. So financial documents for a given year could be in a PDF file linked to a cell in a spreadsheet.

Above all, do not multi-task while you are organizing. He notes that just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognition. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College in London calls it infomania He has done research that demonstrated that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in the inbox can reduce the effective by 10 points. He has also shown that cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russ Poldrack, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. The information goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Absent the distraction of TV the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a number of ways so that it is easier to retrieve.

Moreover, there are metabolic costs to switching attention. Shifting the brain from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel needed to stay on task. The rapid, continual shifting when we multitask causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain compromisisng both cognitive and physical performance. In addition, repeated task switching leads to anxiety , which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain which in turn can lead to aggressive and compulsive behavior. In contrast, staing on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum ,and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose. .

Attention: Its Different Roles

June 30, 2010

The importance of attention comes up repeatedly in the Healthymemory Blog. The most common reason for failing to remember is the failure to attend to the information. The failure to remember people’s names, to pick up items from the store, information on a test, and so forth is usually due to the failure to pay adequate attention in the first place. One of the primary reasons the mnemonic techniques discussed in this blog work, is that they force you to pay attention in the first place.

A recent article1 has expanded the concept of directed attention to include self-regulation. Directed attention is often termed selective attention. Selective attention refers attending to one source of information and ignoring, or selecting out, other sources of information. Selective attention is contrasted with divided attention when we attend, or try to attend, to multiple sources of information at the same time. These days a more common term for divided attention is multi-tasking. Sometimes it seems that in today’s world multi-tasking, especially among the young, has become the norm. I remember seeing a television program on PBS about students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It appeared that they were all multi-tasking practically all their waking hours. They all seemed to be of the opinion that there were no costs to multi-tasking and that they could perform multiple tasks at once without any of the individual tasks suffering. This opinion reflected a basic ignorance, even among these extremely intelligent MIT students, that our attentional resources are limited. Well our species, including MIT students, have a limited supply of attention. Moreover, the act of switching between tasks itself requires attention. MIT students can be disabused of their conviction that multi-tasking does have costs by examining the results of their performance comparing how well they did while multi-tasking against how well they did while single tasking.

Sometimes it is convenient to multi-task. I like to read while watching sports on TV. I do, however, realize that my comprehension and reading speed suffer as a result of multi-tasking. If it is important for me to understand and learn certain material, then I try to shut out all distractions.

One of the main contributions of the above cited Kaplan and Berman article is that it establishes a link between these cognitive activities and self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to pitting one’s intentions against one’s inclinations. The best example here is dieting. You’re intention is to lose weight, but your inclination is to eat a great deal because you are hungry. Similarly you might intend to eat a healthier diet, but your inclination is to eat tastier foods. Or your intention might be to study for an exam, but your inclination is to go to the movies. According to Kaplan and Berman, these self-regulation activities draw upon the same resources as do your efforts to attend to particular information or tasks. In other words, the reason we do not do as well as we might in both our cognitive and self-regulatory efforts is that they both require expenditures from this common pool. Moreover, continued expenditures from this pool result in fatigue, decrements in performance, and relapses in our intentions.

For example, when research participants were forced to eat radishes in the presence of more attractive cookies they were less persistent in solving puzzles and less effective in solving the puzzles than research participants who were not required to eat radishes in the presence of attractive cookies.

Other research has shown that either requiring research participants to ignore extraneous stimulation (selective attention) or to stifle emotional distress responses resulted in poorer performance as measured by intellectual aptitude tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). All these studies can be found in the Kaplan and Berman article.

One should recognize these relationships and limitations when planning personal goals. Planning to lose a significant amount of weight and master a difficult subject matter should not be attempted at the same time. It would be better to accomplish them sequentially or to pursue each more modestly. This is probably the reason that most of us who lose weight manage to find it again. While we are expending the resources to discipline ourselves we manage to lose the weight. However, later, as other demands are made on our attentional/regulatory resources, the weight returns.

1Kaplan, S., & Berman, M.G. (2010). Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5:43.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.