Monday, 2 May 2011

Multi-tasking muddles the brain

Watch some TV, finish off an email, and wolf down a sandwich; that seems like a typical situation for anybody trying to cope in this modern world. However trying to "multitask" may gives us the illusion of doing more when in reality, we may very well be screwing up more.

Scientists have turned their attention to this phenomenon and concluded we may not be doing ourselves any favours by trying to do two things at once. Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. The brain is forced to pause and refocus continuously as one switches between tasks. Realistically, this is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing. (Wikipedia: Human Multitasking) In a study done at Vanderbilt University in 2006, researchers used MRI scans to study what's actually going on in the brain. Their conclusion was that when humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task usually leads to postponement of the second one.

Okay, so you think you're doing two tasks, but you are really moving from one thing to another. That isn't the end of the problems. Scientists have also pointed out the unusual phenomenon whereby multi-taskers seem to develop some sort of focus on new information. That is, moving around between different things means they are trying to find out what's new; what new thing do they have to deal with. As such, they develop a tendency to ignore what's old or possibly what's ordinary. What's this mean? We're turning into info junkies. We're looking for the stimulation or excitement of new information and if we don't get it, we get bored. If we appear distracted, it's because we can't focus on what's not new. The NY Times reported that the idea of information overload causing distraction is now being supported by research. Wired Magazine added: Some people suspect that a multitasking lifestyle has changed how they think, leaving them easily distracted and unable to concentrate even when separated from computers and phones. Their uneasiness may be justified. In several benchmark tests of focus, college students who routinely juggle many flows of information, bouncing from e-mail to web text to video to chat to phone calls, fared significantly worse than their low-multitasking peers.

It boils down to this. We are spending so much time just looking for new information - checking our Inbox, looking at the news on the Internet, verifying stock prices, etc. - we do not spend the time necessary to accomplish any one thing. In fact, it could be argued that the amount of time necessary to do this checking is in itself a waste of time as how many times is there nothing new to see?

In my blog Would Skinner have owned a Blackberry? I looked at the American psychologist and behaviourist B. F. Skinner and how his work in the area of intermittent reinforcement can be applied to our email Inbox. Skinner proved through experiments putting pigeons in a box, a "Skinner box" and intermittently giving them seeds to reward their behaviour, that behaviour could be reinforced however the reward process did not have to be consistent.

Email has become one of the major means of communication, if not the principal means. Those of us for whom email is essential, checking the Inbox has become a central activity of good communication. Is there an important email to which we must respond? Otherwise, recheck your Inbox in a minute. We go back constantly to see if there is new mail. .... Hey! What is the difference between the Inbox and the Skinner box?

Either at office or home, I found that I returned to my Inbox over and over again in hopes of finding a new email. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there was a strong link between this phenomenon and intermittent reinforcement. However, this time it is not a piece of food, the reward is an email. My Inbox is a slot machine!

I have long chuckled when I saw myself as a pigeon in a Skinner box. I realized that without my knowledge the action of checking my mail had become a habit and that habit controlled my life to some extent. I started watching my colleagues at work and I noticed that many of them did the same thing as me. They were also captivated by email. Or should I say they were also captivated by the possibility or hope to receive an email.

Final Word
We think we're doing more, but in fact we're accomplishing less. We think we're being productive when in reality we're running around checking for new information as opposed to actually doing something. Instead of sticking with one thing and finishing it, we are tackling several things piecemeal and possibly finishing nothing.

On top of this, we are becoming such information junkies, we can't sit still long enough to concentrate on anything which requires attentiveness and deliberation. Is Twitter with its limit of 140 characters representative of this new "distraction"? If it's longer than a tweet, I can't pay attention long enough to read it and comprehend what I'm reading. Gee, do I stop reading novels and start reading drabbles? (see my blog: Writing: Less is more: the drabble)

Are we trying to do too much? Is this sensory overload? Is the old noggin hitting "Tilt"? How about closing the computer, shutting off the cellphone, and disabling the iPad. You make yourself a nice cup of tea, then kick back in a comfortable chair, relax, and read a good book. Of course, that book will be on an eBook reader like the Amazon Kindle with Wi-Fi access.


Wikipedia: Human multitasking
Human multitasking is the performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking. An example of multitasking is listening to a radio interview while typing an email. Some believe that multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

Neuron 52, 1109–1120, December 21, 2006
Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI
Paul E. Dux, Jason Ivanoff, Christopher L. Asplund, and René Marois
Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neurosciences
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37203
When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task usually leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision-making operations from being concurrently executed. Using time-resolved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), here we present a neural basis for such dual-task limitations, e.g. the inability of the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex, and possibly the superior medial frontal cortex, to process two decision-making operations at once. These results suggest that a neural network of frontal lobe areas acts as a central bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask.

The Telegraph - Jul 17/2010
Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men
Psychologists have proven that men really are worse at multitasking than women, although it does depend on the task.
By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
It is an age old complaint - that men are incapable of doing more than one thing at once. Researchers decided to test the truth of the commonly held belief after discovering that no scientific research had ever been done into it. They found that when women and men work on a number of simple tasks - such as searching for a key or doing easy maths problems - at the same time, the women significantly outperformed the men. Scientists believe that the results show that females are better able to reflect upon a problem, while continuing to juggle their other commitments, than men.

The Telegraph - Apr 16/2010
Scientists discover why multitasking is so difficult
The reason why multitasking is so difficult has been uncovered by scientists.
By Kate Devlin, Medical Correspondent
Now new research shows that the mind can easily deal with two separate tasks at the same time, because it can channel them into the two separate parts of the front of the brain. However, when a third activity was introduced the mind became overloaded. Accuracy declined and volunteers were much less able to carry out tasks, the study found.

The New York Times - Jun 6/2010
Attached to Technology and Paying a Price by Matt Richtel
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The New York Times - Jun 6/2010
A Multitasker's Perspective
[Good lord! This is an interactive panorama of the work station of a gentleman discussed in the above main article. I count 4 monitors, an iPad, and an iPhone. This is hilarious. This isn't multitasking, this is just plain nuts!]

Wired - Aug 24/2009
Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer Is Off By Brandon Keim

Stanford University - July 20, 2009
Cognitive control in media multitaskers
Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nassb, and Anthony D. Wagnerc
Chronic media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous, although processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition. A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.

my blog: Would Skinner have owned a Blackberry?
I look at the American psychologist and behaviourist B. F. Skinner and how the concept of intermittent reinforcement can be applied to our email Inbox.

my blog: Writing: Less is more: the drabble
The word drabble designates a story which is exactly 100 words long.

my blog: Sex in the Digital Age
For the past three years, the magazines Shape and Men's Fitness have teamed up to do an annual sex survey. This year's effort has focused on love in the Internet age and asked some "digital questions" which reveal interesting information about how social media is affecting not just our lives, but our love lives.


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