Posts Tagged ‘Multitasking’

Embrace Boredom

October 21, 2019

This is the seventh post in a series of posts on a book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” His second rule, which is perhaps surprising, is to embrace boredom. He writes “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Clifford Nass, the late Stanford communications professor conducted research revealing that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on the brain. Here is Nass summarizing these findings. “So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage working memory. They’re chronically distracted. The use much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

When asked whether the chronically distracted recognize the rewiring of their brain, Nass responded, “The people we talk with continually said, ‘look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser focused.’ And, unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”

Author Newport advises, don’t take breaks from distraction, instead take breaks from focus. He continues, if you’ve scheduled your next Internet break thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance becomes a session of concentration calisthenics. A full day of scheduled distraction becomes a full day of mental training. Scheduling Internet use at home can further improve your concentration training.

And don’t forget meditation. Newport calls productive meditation in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering, and focusing one’s attention on a single well-defined problem. One must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. Use the search block at and enter “meditation” and the “relaxation response” to find relevant posts.

Newport also recommends mnemonic techniques. The healthy memory blog has a whole category of posts on mnemonic techniques. The category can be found at
the URL previously listed.

There is also an interesting post about memory competitions titled “Moonwalking with Einstein” which can be found by entering this title into the search block.


June 16, 2019

This is the sixth post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the sixth section of this book. Rushkoff begins, “When autonomous technologies appear to be calling all the shots, it’s only logical for humans to conclude that if we can’t beat them, we may as well join them. Whenever people are captivated—be they excited or enslaved—by a new technology, it becomes their new role model, too. “

“In the Industrial Age, as mechanical clocks dictated human time, we began to think of ourselves in very mechanical terms. We described ourselves as living in a ‘clockwork universe,’ in which the human body was one of the machines.” Mechanical metaphors emerged in our language. We needed to grease the wheels, crank up the business, dig deeper, or turn a company into a well-oiled machine.

In the digital age we view our world as computational. Humans are processors; everything is data. Logic does not compute. He multitasks so well he’s capable of interfacing with more than one person in his network at a time.

Projecting human qualities onto machines is called anthropomorphism, but we are projecting machine qualities onto humans. Seeing a human being as a machine or computer is called mechanomorphism. This is not just treating machines as living humans; it’s treating humans as machines.

When we multitask we are assuming that, just like computers, we can do more than one task at a time. But research has been shown, and related in healthy memory blog posts, that when we multitask, our performance suffers. Sometimes this multitasking, such as when we talk, or even worse, text, while we are driving, we can die.

It is both curious and interesting that drone pilots, who monitor and neutralize people by remote control from thousands of miles away, experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than “real” pilots. An explanation for these high rates of distress is that, unlike regular pilots, drone pilots often observe their targets for weeks before killing them. These stress rates remain disproportionately high even for missions in which the pilots had no prior contact with the victims.

Rushkoff writes that a more likely reason for the psychic damage is that this drone pilots are trying to exist in more than one location at a time. They might be in a facility in Nevada operating a lethal weapon system deployed on the other side of the planet. After dropping ordnance and killing a few dozen people, the pilots don’t land their planes, climb out, and return to the mess hall to debrief over beers with their fellow pilots. They just log out, get into their cars, and drive home to the suburbs for dinner with their families. It’s like being two different people in different places in the same day. But none of us is two people or can be in more than one place. Unlike a computer program, which can be copied and run from several different machines simultaneously, human beings have one “instance” of themselves running at a time.
Rushkoff writes, “We may want to be like the machines of our era, but we can never be as good at being digital devices as the digital devices themselves. This is a good thing, and maybe the only way to remember that by aspiring to imitate our machines, we leave something even more important behind: our humanity.’

The smartphone, along with all the other smartphones, create an environment: a world where anyone can reach us at any time, where people walk down public sidewalks in private bubbles, and where our movements are tracked by GPS and stored in marketing and government databases for future analysis. In turn, these environmental factors promote particular states of mind, such as paranoia about be tracked, a constant state of distraction, and fear of missing out.

The digital media environment impacts us collectively, as an economy and as a society. Investors’ expectations of what a stock’s chart should look like given the breathtaking pace at which a digital company can reach “scale” has changed, as well as how a CEO should surrender the long-term health of a company for the short-term growth of shares. Rushkoff notes that the internet’s emphasis on metrics and quantity over depth and quality has engendered a society that values celebrity, sensationalism, an numeric measures of success. The digital media environment expresses itself in the physical environment s well; the production, use, and disposal of digital technologies depletes scarce resources, expends massive amount of energy, and pollutes vast regions of the planet.

Rushkoff concludes, “Knowing the particular impacts of a media environment on our behaviors doesn’t excuse our complicity, but it helps us understand what we’re up against—which way things are tilted. This enables us to combat their effects, as well as the darker aspects of our own nature that they provoke.”

If one assumes that humanity is a pure mechanistic affair, explicable entirely in the language of data processing then what’s the difference whether human beings or computers are doing that processing. Transhumanists hope to transcend biological existence. Kurzweil’s notion of a singularity in which human consciousness is uploaded into a computer has been written off in previous posts. The argument that these previous posts has made is that biology and silicon are two different media that operate in different ways. Although they can interact they cannot become one.

Rushkoff’s concludes, “It’s not that wanting to improve ourselves, even with seemingly invasive technology, is so wrong. It’s that we humans should be making active choices about what it is we want to do to ourselves, rather than letting the machines, or the markets propelling them, decide for us.

We Need to Take Tech Addiction Seriously

March 26, 2019

The title of this post is the same as an article by psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee in the 19 March 2019 issue of the Washington Post. The World Health Organization has recognized Internet gaming as a diagnosable addiction. Dr. Dodgen-Magee argues that psychologists and other mental-health professionals must begin to acknowledge that technology use has the potential to become addictive and impact individuals and communities. Sometime the consequences are dire.

She writes that the research is clear, that Americans spend most of their waking hours interacting with screens. Studies from a nonprofit group Common Sense Media indicate that U.S. teens average approximately nine hours per day with digital media, tweens spend six hours and our youngest, ages zero to 8, spend 2.5 hours daily in front of a screen. According to research by the Nielsen Company, the average adult in the United States spends more than 11 hours a day in the digital world. Dr. Dodgen-Magee claims that when people invest this kind of time in any activity, we must at least start to ask what it means for their mental health.

Both correlational and causal relationships have been established between tech use and various mental-health conditions. Research at the University of Pittsburgh found higher rates of depression and anxiety among young adults who engage many social media platforms than those who engage only two. Jean Twenge found that the psychological development of adolescents is slowing down and depression, anxiety and loneliness, which she attributes to tech engagement are on the rise. Multitasking, a behavior that technology encourages and reinforces is consistently correlated with poor cognitive and mental-health outcomes. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have published the first experimental data linking decreased well-being to Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use in young adults. Dr. Dodgen-Magee concludes that our technology use is affecting our psychological functioning.

The author has been examining the interplay between technology and mental health for close to two decades. She finds that while technology can do incredible things for us in nearly every area of life, it is neither all good nor benign.

The author writes that when the mental-health community resists fully exploring the costs associated with constant tech interaction, it leaves those struggling with compulsive or potentially harmful use of their devices few places to turn. She continues that recently a woman scheduled a consultation with her because she was concerned about her inability to focus. She was a self-described Type A personality who found herself simultaneously interacting with three or four screens for nearly 20 hours a day, determined to stay on top of every demand. When it came time for her biannual revision of an important procedural manual, she couldn’t focus on the single tasks for the time to do it effectively. She is not the only individual with this problem.

She writes that consequently our attention spans are short. Our ability to focus on one task at a time is impaired. And our boredom tolerance is nil. People now rely on the same devices that drive so much of our anxiety and alienation for both stimulation and soothing. While, for many people, these changes will never move into the domain of addiction, for others they already have. In a recent Common Sense Media poll, 50% of adolescents reported already feeling that their use had become addictive and 27% of parents reported the same.

She writes, “If Americans were interacting with anything else for 11-plus hours a day, I feel confident we’d be talking more about how that interaction shapes us. Mental-health professionals must begin to educate themselves about the digital pools in which their clients swim and learn about the impact of excessive technology use on human development and functioning. It is too easy for therapists to assume that everyone’s engagement with the digital domain looks just their own and to go merrily from there. We would serve our client well by understanding the unique way in which many platforms encourage addictive pattens and behaviors. We should also create non-shaming environments in which they can candidly explore how their tech use impacts them.

It’s time to put our phones down and begin an informed conversation about how technology is impacting our mental health. Our clients’ health and the well-being of our communities may depend on it.”

The Psychology of Technology

September 16, 2017

At the centerpiece of technology is the internet. This is the seventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There is a distinction made in human memory between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory, but not at the moment accessible. A similar distinction can be made for information in transactive memory. Information that can be readily accessed, say via Google for instance, is accessible in transactive memory. However, information that requires more than one step to access is in available transactive memory. Obviously, the amount of information available in transactive memory is enormous, so only information that can be quickly accessed is in accessible transactive memory. So a hierarchy of information knowledge is
accessible personal memory
available personal memory (information that is personal memory but is currently inaccessible)
accessible transactive memory (information readily accessible from technology or a fellow human)
available transactive memory (information that can be found with sufficient searches)

This hierarchy can be regarded as an indication of the depth of knowledge.

Someone who can communicate extemporaneously and accurately on a topic has an impressive degree of knowledge.

Someone who refers to notes is dependent on those notes.

Whenever we encounter new relevant information we are confronted with the problem as whether commit that information to memory, or to bookmark it so it can be accessed when needed. Too much reliance on bookmarks can lead to superficial knowledge and unimpressive presentations.

Dr. Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues at Columbia University studied the ability to remember facts and unsurprisingly discovered that we were much better at knowing where to find the answers to our questions than we were at remembering the answers themselves. She dubbed this the “Google Effect.”

Social media began with email, but this is fundamentally one to one communication. Facebook is the medium for widespread communication. Moreover, there is the business of friending and liking. This tends to be taken to extremes. One cannot have hundreds of meaningful friends, and the continuous seeking of approval through likes can become problematic.

Smartphones are smart because the computer is in the phone making it smart. More than seven in ten Americans own one, more than 860 million Europeans own one, and more than half all cell phone owners in Asia have at least one smartphone if not more. More photographs are taken with smartphones than with digital cameras, and more online shopping is done via smartphones than through standard computers. Smartphone users pick up their phone an average of 27 times a day, ranging from 14 to 150 times per day depending on the study, the population, and the number of years that someone has owned he smartphone—and the number of years that someone has owned the smartphone—those who have owned a smartphone longer check it far more often than those who have recently obtained a phone. Frequently, there is no good reason for them to do so; 42% check their phone when they have time to kill (which rises to 55% of young adults). Only 23% claim to do so when there is something specific for them to do. Feelings of loneliness appear to underlie at least some of this apparently non-needed use of technology (see the healthy memory blog post “Loneliness”).

Multitasking, task switching, and continuous partial attention are serious problems. Remember that we cannot multitask. What is apparently multi-tasking is the rapid switching between or among tasks, and there are attentional costs in doing this switching. Multitasking occurs in every sphere of our world, including home, school, workplace, and our leisure life. Moreover, this is not just limited to the younger generation. One study followed a group of young adults and a group of older adults with wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras for more than 300 hours of leisure time. Younger adults switched from task to task twenty-severn times an hour, about once every two minutes. Older adults switched tasks seventeen times per hour, or once every three to four minutes. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone termed this constant multitasking, “continuous partial attention.” This could also be termed half-keistered information processing. Attention is not being distributed optimally.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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.

Cognitive Control Limitations

September 15, 2017

This is the sixth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A brief summary of cognitive control limitations follows.

Selectivity is limited by susceptibility to both internal and external influences. Only one source can be selected. It takes attention to disregard both internal and external sources that are external to what you’ve selected. This is why libraries are kept silent. Extraneous external sources require attention to be filtered out. This also involves internal sources. For example, you might be trying to concentrate on your homework, but you keep thinking about your upcoming date. Most meditation begins with focusing on your breath and perhaps a word or phrase and ignoring extraneous thoughts and extraneous stimuli.

Distribution of attention results in diminished performance compared to focused attention. This focusing requires attentional effort.

Sustainability of attention over time is limited, especially in extended boring situations. Although multitasking situations are not boring, there is the tendency to switch attention rather than to attend to what one is currently attending.

There are processing speed limitations that affect both the efficiency of allocation and withdrawal of attention.

Our working memory capacity is severely limited as to the number of items that can be held in working memory. The magic number 7 plus or minus 2, is closer to 5 plus or minus 2, and the limit can be as small as one depending on the nature of the information.

The fidelity, or quality of information maintained in working memory, decays over time and as a result of interference.

Multitasking is limited by our inability to parallel process two attention demanding taks. In reality task switching is required, which results in costs to accuracy and speed performance.

Although these are the same limitations homo sapiens have always had, they become much more pronounced due to the way we use our current technology. Moreover, this technology keeps multiplying, which exacerbates this problem further.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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.


Make Conscious Choices

October 6, 2013

The fourth principle of contemplative computing1 is to Make Conscious Choices. Always remember that it is you who decides when to use which devices and which software. It is you who decides if and when you will answer your phone and your voice mail. Don’t let technology dictate what you do. Make conscious choices and be mindful of your choices.

Dr. Pang also makes a useful distinction between multi-tasking and switch tasking. True multi-tasking involves doing multiple tasks that go together. Cooking several dishes at the same time in the preparation of a meal is one of the examples provided by Dr. Pang. Conducting a teleconference on your computer is another example. My wife likes to walk and talk on her cellphone. As long as this is done in a quiet environment, this is another example of multitasking. However, were she walking in an urban environment, this would, of necessity, be an example of switch tasking because she would need to switch her attention to assure that she would not be hit in traffic. Similarly, driving and talking on the phone is an example of switch tasking. The tasks do not go together and attention much be switched from one task to the other. The very act of switching tasks demands attention. And remember when you are driving, you are controlling a vehicle that can kill. Previous healthymemory blog posts have not make a distinction between multitasking and switch tasking. The multitasking dangers discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts have been switch tasking dangers using Dr. Pang’s distinction.

Properly designed Zenware reminds you that you make your own choices about where to direct your attention by helping you focus your attention.

The first three principles of contemplative computing were discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts. The four remaining principles of contemplative computing will be discussed in subsequent healthymemory blog posts.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction.

Voice-Activated Texting is Still Dangerous

April 24, 2013

The effects of voice-activated texting were tested at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.1 Quite a few years ago, I, along with my colleagues, spent a very interesting day at this institute. It is an impressive institute that conducts quality research. The institute assessed a mobile device that translates words into text messages. They found that it is every bit as dangerous as conventional texting. Reaction times were twice as slow, and eyes were on the road much less often than when they were not texting. This result is not surprising; it is analogous to using hands free phones while driving. Research has shown that using a hands free phone while driving is analogous to driving under the influence of alcohol. The problem is one of attentional limitations, our limited ability to process information. Texting or speaking on the phone degrades driving performance. Although it is true that texting is more dangerous than speaking on the phone, what bothers me is that all the warnings involve texting. Using the phone while driving is still dangerous. And hands free laws are irrelevant to the problem.

According to the article, about 3,300 people a year die in crashes attributed to distracted driving , with 387,000 more injured in 2011. Frankly, I regard these numbers, particularly the numbers involving deaths, to be unrealistically low. What was especially alarming was the survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 35 percent of drivers admitted that they had recently read text messages or e-mail while driving, and that 26 percent said they had sent a text message. If you are wondering why I find these numbers so worrisome, please read the healthymemory blog post, “The “Now” is Really the “Then.” To learn more about the dangers of using the phone while driving, see the healthymemory blog posts, “Phone and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving,” “Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better,” and “Multitasking is a Trade-Off.” Texting and phoning while driving might be conveniences, but remember that for many years we did just fine without these conveniences. If you want to put yourself and your passengers at risk is one matter, but consider the risk you are placing on others on the road.

1Halsey III, A. (2013) Drivers not safer with voice-activated texting study finds. Washington Post, 23 April, B1.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. 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.

Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better

March 6, 2013

I feel compelled to write this post because of blaring commercials claiming that doing two things at once is better. The healthymemory blog has many posts on the effects of multi-tasking (enter “multi-tasking” into the search block of the blog). Out attentional capacity is limited, such that when we try to do two tasks, the performance on one or both tasks usually suffers. Moreover, the switching between tasks involves attentional costs.

Now it might be true that we enjoy doing two things at once because we want to talk and watch television at the same time. And it is definitely true that there are times when we are required to do two things at once. Nevertheles, there are cognitive costs to doing two things at once. We can both perform and enjoy an activity more when we are devoting all our attention to it than when we multi-task. We might want to read or study at the same time we are watching television, but the efficiency of the reading or study will suffer.

We also need to realize that we can jeopardize ourselves and others when we multi-tasking. Texting and driving has received a lot of deserved adverse publicity. Unfortunately using a phone while driving has not received as much adverse publicity. There is also a misconception, that it is the hands that present a problem while driving and using the phone. Consequently there are hands-free laws on the books in many places. These laws accomplish little or nothing. It is the attentional demands of using a phone while driving that presents the danger. Research has indicated that driving performance while on the phone is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08%, the most common standard for driving under the influence (DUI).

Another myth is that youngsters who have grown up with technology can multi-task without costs. Evolution is slow and insufficient time has passed for this to be the case. Moreover, research has found that this is not true. It was found that even students at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT), who thought that they could multi-task without costs, were proven to be wrong.

The argument here is not to ever multi-task. Sometimes multi-tasking is convenient or enjoyable. There are other times when multi-tasking is required. But we must all be aware that multi-tasking does involve costs, and that we should never place ourselves or others in danger.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.


March 11, 2012

What is this? After a couple of blog posts on the dangers of multitasking comes a post on supertaskers? Well, the extensive research by Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah (my alma mater) has identified certain people as supertaskers.1 In their database of research participants, they found individuals who had virtually identical scores for doing either just one or both activities. Out of a database of 700 participants, only 19 (2.7%) met this criterion.

They did a follow up study with 16 of these supertaskers and a group of control participants matched with respect to single-task scores, working-memory capacity, gender, and age. Then they had these participants concurrently maintain and manipulate separate visual and auditory streams of information while they imaged their brains. Significant differences were found between the two groups in their patterns of neural activation. Supertaskers showed less activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. The control participants showed more activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. Supertaskers seemed to be able to keep their brains cool under a heavy load. Supertaskers differed most from controls in three frontal brain areas that had been identified in earlier neuropsychological research: the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers found that the frontopolar cortex to be the most intriguing brain region that separated the supertaskers from the controls. They said that comparative studies with humans and great apes indicate that this area is relatively larger and more richly interconnected in humans, whereas other frontal cortical areas are more equivalent in size and connectivity. They speculate that “The emergence of human’s multitasking ability, however flawed, might be a relatively recent evolutionary change in hominid brains, helping to distinguish humans from other animals. In addition, neuropsychological patients with more extensive frontopolar damage have been shown to be more impaired in multitasking”2

The authors go on to speculate about the possible role of a particular gene. They note that whether multitaskers are just an extreme on a continuum or are qualitatively different remains an open question. It should be remembered that these are supertaskers in a relative sense, that is they are supertaskers with respect to other humans. I am curious to know what happens when the total information load is increased. Does the performance of both tasks suffer equally or does the supertasker become similar to the rest of us humans, sacrificing one task for the other. I am also curious as to whether appropriate training and deliberate practice (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice”), more of us might become supertaskers.

As I cautionary note, I would advise against self assessments as to your supertasking abilities. Remember that those who think they are good multitaskers, tend to be the poorest multitaskers.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.


© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

Phoning and Driving Is As Dangerous as Drinking and Driving

March 7, 2012

Perhaps the multitasking that presents the most immediate risk to the most people is driving while speaking on the phone. Phoning while driving is as dangerous as driving while drunk (BAC >0.08). This has been demonstrated in David Strayer’s laboratory at the University of Utah.1 I’m especially proud as I received my doctorate from the University of Utah. His laboratory includes a sophisticated driving simulator.

It is important to realize that it is the attentional demands of phoning that distract from driving that make it dangerous. Somehow it was thought that if phoning were made hands free it would be safe. It does not, as it is just as dangerous. A recent study could not find any benefits of state laws requiring hands free phone well driving. These results were not surprising as the use of hands is irrelevant. State legislatures did a lot of work to produce a law that did not address the problem. Most people tend to be defensive and not accept this finding because it is convenient to phone and drive. For example, they might argue that they converse all the time in their cars and have yet to have an accident. There is a critical difference between conversations that take place within a car and conversations with someone in a distant location. People in the car tend to have situation awareness regarding the driving situation and can even offer help. A remote individual has no idea of what you are dealing with on the road. Or someone might argue that they sometimes have to deal with unruly children while they are driving. I am always amused when someone cites something that is just as dangerous or more dangerous for doing something dangerous. One could argue that texting while driving is more dangerous than phoning while driving, so therefore it is justified. Phoning and driving is dangerous. DON’T DO IT!

It is true that under normal driving conditions with nothing unexpected happening, it is not likely that you will have an accident. However, it is also true that most people driving with BAC’s close to the driving under the influence threshold also would be unlikely to have an accident. People with BAC’s at that level are unlikely to be found weaving across the road. It would be nice if our legal system were consistent; but it appears to be, for the most part, arbitrary.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

The Dangers of MultiTasking

March 4, 2012

A common notion is that young people who have grown up with technology have effectively rewired their brains for multitasking and are proficient at multitasking. This common notion is wrong according to research.1 A group of psychologists at UCLA led by Karin Foerde conducted an experiment to determine whether multitasking impairs learning. They trained 14 participants to perform a single task, predicting the weather based on certain cues. Their brains were scanned while they did this. Their brains were also scanned while they did this task and had a secondary task added to it, keeping count of the number of high pitched auditory tones in a series of auditory tones.

The participants were able to perform both tasks, but they paid a cognitive cost when they performed both tasks. When they performed the weather task alone they used a region of the brain that enables us to apply knowledge gained to other situations when needed (System 2 processing). However, when they performed both tasks at once, they activated a part of their brain linked with habit learning (System 1 processing), The psychologist William James knew this more than one hundred years ago when he wrote that “we can’t easily do more than one thing at once, “unless the processes are very habitual.”2 So if anything surprising or unusual is encountered, it is likely to be missed.

Subsequently, a group of researchers at Stanford classified a group of participants as whether heavy or light multitaskers. They administered a series of cognitive tests, each designed to measure some aspect of distractibility to see which group handled the load better. They were surprised to find that compared to light multitaskers, the heavy multitaskers did a worse job filtering out irrelevant distractions, had a harder time ignoring irrelevant memories, and took a longer time switch from one task to another. Now both groups performed the same on tasks when there were no distractions. But it appears that the heavy multitaskers “may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.3

The problem is that people typically are not aware of this loss in performance. Other researchers4 found that people who were high in real-world multitasking not only had lower working-memory capacity, but also were more impulsive and sensation-seeking. Worse yet, they rated their own ability to multitask as higher than average. So their perceived ability and actual ability to multitask were inversely related. It appears that overconfidence rather than skill drives this proliferation of multitasking. The fear is that academic activity will receive less focused time, resulting in cursory processing of information and shoddy outcomes.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Rewired: Cognition in the Digital Age. Observer, 25,2, 16-20. A Publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

2James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psycholog. NY: Holt.

3. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, E.D., Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583-15587.

4Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.