Saturday, November 10, 2007

This is your brain on multitasking

Walter Kirn has an article in The Atlantic on multitasking. It's behind the subscription wall, but if you heard him on The Colbert Report, you heard most of it. Shorter Walter Kirn, for those who didn't see him: Multitasking? He's against it.

Here are two passages, along with an observation from class (the real point of this post, if there is one):
Efficiency, convenience, and mobility.

For proof that these bundled minor virtues don’t amount to freedom but are, instead, a formula for a period of mounting frenzy climaxing with a lapse into fatigue, consider that “Where do you want to go today?” was really manipulative advice, not an open question. “Go somewhere now,” it strongly recommended, then go somewhere else tomorrow, but always go, go, go—and with our help. But did any rebel reply, “Nowhere. I like it fine right here”? Did anyone boldly ask, “What business is it of yours?” Was anyone brave enough to say, “Frankly, I want to go back to bed”?

Comment: That person? That person saying "I want to go back to bed"? That was me, but just under my breath.

Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Comment: Walter, Walter, Walter. Can you not understand that sometimes the sorting/filing/whatever boringly repetitive tasks are so boring that we don't especially want to remember what we're doing? Or that having a source of sound--not random tones but music--is keeping us from the mental sounds that say "You should have had this done LAST WEEK!"?

So, my take on multitasking? It can be good, and it can be bad. It can also be annoying.

I have a student who diligently takes notes if I'm talking about Certified Important Material. She knows it's important if I'm gesturing in front of a PowerPoint slide or writing on the board or writing on something that's projected on a screen. If her classmates are talking, though, even if they're saying good things, she whips out a planner and gets to work on it. I have no idea about the complexities of a 20-year-old's life these days; maybe she's more overscheduled than Donald Trump. My guess? There's nothing that couldn't wait until class is over. She continues this even when I sum up and expand on what the class is saying (you teachers know the technique) because, although she thinks she's multitasking, she's actually lost the entire thread of what we're talking about. She thinks she's listening and sorting index cards, so to speak, but she's neither listening nor sorting particularly well.

And that, in a nutshell, is your brain on multitasking.


Anonymous said...

Or that having a source of sound--not random tones but music--is keeping us from the mental sounds that say "You should have had this done LAST WEEK!"?

This is absolutely me. Having music take up the spare channel in my brain makes it *so* much easier to focus on a task.

ArticulateDad said...

I think there's a somewhat neglected "third way" here. I'm not particularly good at true multi-tasking... I do it more often than I'd like to admit, but it dangerously heightens my stress levels. On the other hand, I've always been marvelously adept at serial concentration. I find it perhaps necessary to have multiple projects open at the same time. I've often been known to be reading a half dozen books concurrently. I find it refreshing to find the links between multiple streams of thought.

But, unlike dance I find any attempt to actually partake of multiple activities (say listening to music and reading an article) reduces my effectiveness at one or both. I figure, if it's worth doing (or listening to), then it's worthy of my full attention (if only for a brief moment).

Anonymous said...

Multitasking can cross fertilize, though, if the tasks are interrelated enough. Otherwise it fragments me and I do nothing well.

undine said...

Dance, "spare channel" says it exactly. I'm going to have that channel on anyway (can't help it) and would much rather listen to music than to the Inner Nag channel.

Your comment made me think of the book wheel, ArticulateDad. I like to work on things serially sometimes, but once I get writing, I need to focus on just on. Otherwise, as cero says, they make me scattered.