Sunday, March 21, 2010

Distraction “R” US: The Myth of Multitasking

If this year didn't have enough disappointments, now we find that multitasking is a bust, or more specifically, a myth. Turns out our brains can't do two things at once. All this time, we thought we were accomplishing so much, but really we were just switching back and forth between activities. To make it worse, all the flip flopping comes at a cost, quality. It's a bit like a circuit overload; an overwhelmed noggin just shuts down.

It doesn't take a genius to know that the person driving in front of me, chatting on their cell phone, is not paying attention to the road. And don't get me started on texting and driving. The science on the failure of multitasking is mighty convincing. Stanford University researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagne at the Communications between Humans and Interactive Media Lab ( ) found those who like to juggle activities underperform in comparison to one-thing-at-a-timers. Apparently, multitaskers simply cannot ignore distractions and their memories are impaired as well. So do multitaskers excel at switching back and forth between activities? The researchers predicted so, but guess what? They were wrong again, it appears that multitaskers are also unable filter out irrelevant information. But wait; there's more … Arousing our stress hormones, multitasking can actually be detrimental to our health. Walter Kirn chronicles all the bad news in his piece in The Atlantic Monthly (, “The Autumn of Multitasking.”

Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology (, discovered that we actually use a different part of our brain when we multitask. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Poldrack discovered that the hippocampus, the brain's power center for memory, is not engaged when we learned with distractions. Instead, the brain's B team for learning, the striatum, is activated. His conclusion is that there is a distinction between learning a simple activity like exercising to music, which enhances brain function, and learning something new in an environment with distraction, which doesn’t.

This isn’t exactly new information. Way back in 1959, Margaret and Lloyd Peterson published “Short Term Retention of Individual Verbal Items” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Their subjects tried to learn something new while counting backwards. As you might predict, it didn't turn out well.

None of these studies mentioned that fact that doing a few things at once is really fun and empowering. I get a sense of wild joy when I try to scramble eggs, make sure the croissants don't burn and brew the coffee, attempting to have everything ready at the exactly the same time. I feel like the conductor of my very own orchestra, or breakfast ensemble anyway. But hasn’t our techno-world has been entirely structured to scramble our attention? In the one minute we check our Facebook feed, we get a sense of thousands of people doing thousands of things. Is that all just useless information that we are wired to soak up? Is there actually a purpose? Or are we just following technology's lead?

In Nicholas Carr's now-epic essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupider,” he lays out the reasons for the sea change. Carr chronicles our mental shift occurring as we process smaller and more numerous snippets of information. Technology is actually changing the way our brains work.

Chris Welsh, owner of Mastery of Learning ( and an expert on neuroscience, urges us to consider a few key facts. “We multitask all the time,” he says, “like walking and talking. We just need to be more selective about what we pay attention to.” Welsh concurs that doing many things at once can be a brain drain. “Cognitive functions take up the same real estate in the brain. We burn through a lot of energy with all that stopping one thing to do another thing.” Welsh urges us to think of having an attention budget and to practice some form of mindfulness. “We need to exercise our ability to stay focused. As habitually distracted culture, we just need to create new habits of focus. Start with something modest like 5-10 minutes of focusing on one thing and gradually increase the time.”

But that doesn't mean we need to stay glued to a one-thing-at-time lifestyle either.

I'd like to think that the human attention span is a fluid thing, darting and drifting as life comes at us. “We are hard-wired to be curious about what's in our environment,” says Welsh. “A distraction can be something interesting you can learn from. But we don't need to be distracted by every shiny thing; we can be selective about what distracts us.”

As to why we humans seem to cherish task juggling, Welsh has an explanation for that as well. “We like our entire bandwidth filled,” he says. “When we focus on just one thing that doesn't happen, so we look for something to fill it.”

So I guess it's not my fault that while writing this piece I checked my email and Facebook numerous times, watched a snippet of a Canadian TV series on YouTube, read Paul Krugman's New York Times column and sipped a delicious St. Arnold Elissa India Pale Ale. What can I say? I'm just a girl trying to fill her bandwidth.

Reprinted from Absolutely in the Loop.