Friday, October 02, 2009

This is your brain on multitasking, part 2

At the Chronicle, Mark Bauerlein is a little late to the party--he's just figured out that texting while driving might, just might, not be a good idea--but he cites an interesting study from Stanford in support of his proposition that multitasking is changing the brain, and not in a good way:
The primary finding was 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." When people spend months and years trying to multitask, their mental habits follow. Most important, their capacity to filter out distractions and irrelevant items deteriorates. As one of the researchers put it, "They're suckers for irrelevancy." The researchers set up experiments that isolated the ability to ignore things that didn't help subjects complete a problem, and low-multitaskers did well, high-multitaskers poorly.

They also did some memory tests. Result: "The low multitaskers did great," [researcher] Ophir said. "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."

Finally, they did a test of concentration and the pattern held.

"Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. 'They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing,' Ophir said. 'The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds.'"
A couple of things about this research:
  1. Can we stop now, please, with the edu-gurus' insistence that we break up class activities into 90-second bursts or whatever because "that's how students learn now! They multitask! Their brains are better! They're digital natives! Isn't that great!"? I thought that part of the process of brain maturation and education was training students toward, among other things, developing a longer attention span. You don't expect a 3-year-old to have the same level of absorbed attention for an activity that's not of her choosing as you do for an 18-year-old. I'm not saying that we should go back to the old model of boring students to death just because we can ("It's good for them!"), but it seems to me that adopting a progressive infantilization of students through encouraging multitasking and decreased attention spans isn't in their best interests.

  2. It makes me think of the internet information = firehose analogy so popular with librarians and others teaching students how to search. We can teach them good searching techniques to narrow that gush of water/information into a useful stream, but if the "multitasking is good for you" push is training their brains into being unable to avoid the full rush of water, what good are we doing?

  3. I put one part of that in bold because I'm guilty of it, too. I hadn't thought that the whole idea of cheating on and procrastinating about one project because you're temporarily far more fascinated by another was an outgrowth of multitasking (I thought it was laziness and procrastination), but maybe it is. Maybe it's the Samuel Taylor Coleridge model (Pantisocracy! Wait--no, poetry!) of writing winning out over the Anthony Trollope one (up at 5:30 a.m., 250 words every 15 minutes or else). On the other hand, maybe Raymond Chandler had the right idea about acknowledging how attention wanders but disciplining it (through boredom) to get back on track.
Learning how to sort, assess, filter, evaluate, and analyze information with the goal of producing intelligent, coherently expressed writing about those thoughts is what we're supposed to be teaching students. At least this study gives some support for considering that a process not necessarily served best by multitasking.

[Called "part 2" because part 1 is here. That one was on a UCLA study. What is it about California that makes its scientists so concerned with increasing attention spans?]

7 comments:

Ink said...

Much to ponder here...

profacero said...

I am so anti multitasking. I can do it sometimes because I have Gemini rising but most people can't, and even I can't always. I could just rant but it would be to multitask and thus, to procrastinate.

undine said...

Ink, the evidence is strong, but that doesn't mean I won't still try to multitask. Profacero, I don't even have your Gemini rising (I don't think I do; I actually don't know my horoscope in that way) but I still multitask from time to time.

Carl said...

I'm a Gemini and I multitask very badly. I'm what the programmers call a serial processor - if I seem to be multitasking it's not because I'm dividing my attention but because I'm skipping my full attention from task to task.

I couldn't agree more that our job is to teach students how to task more attentively and effectively. Now, how do we collate these good thoughts we keep having about what we do into assessment verbiage that will get the humanities square with the funders?

undine said...

Carl, what you said about teaching students to do those things more effectively is like maintaining campus buildings: everybody wants it done, but nobody wants to invest time or money in it.

Carl said...

So true. Along the same lines I was just trying to explain to a colleague why it's unlikely a rich person will buy us a new classroom building. Classroom buildings being the basic skills / deferred maintenance of buildings, and therefore offering very poor bang for the buck from a status standpoint. A new fitness center we've got, though.

undine said...

If that fitness center has an espresso machine, they can get rid of the library, too, Carl.