May 18, 2011

The myth of multitasking

Since I work at a university and am around young adults all the time, I have long been aware that young people today are avid consumers of multimedia, who are adept at emailing, texting, listening to mp3 players, surfing the web, checking up on Facebook, etc. It seems like they are quite proficient at multitasking.

I have always been a poor multitasker. I cannot read or do any work that requires serious thinking if I can hear conversation or loud noises in the background. I have found that I cannot even listen to music in the background when reading. But I know people who seem to thrive on that kind of ambient sound and even deliberately go to coffee shops to do work such as grading papers or writing, things that would be impossible for me.

I had thought that my lack of ability to multitask was partly due to being old and not acquiring these skills while young, similar to my slow reaction time when playing video games (which results in being destroyed when playing them with my children) and my inability to manipulate my thumbs dexterously enough to use the small keys on cell phones without making numerous mistakes.

I thought my poor multitasking skills may also be due to a cognitive disability, similar to the one that prevents me from ever seeing the hidden 3-D images in those so-called autostereogram ('Magic Eye') pictures that were such a rage a few years ago. The Sunday papers used to have one and my daughters would look briefly at it and say, "Oh, look at the dolphins" or whatever it was that day whereas, despite my strenuous efforts at staring using all the recommended tricks, all I saw were colored dots and wiggly lines. I later learned that some people never see the hidden image, due to some feature of their visual-cognitive brain function. It was not reassuring to discover that I have a defective brain, and that there is no warranty.

But a study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner titled Cognitive control in media multitaskers and published in 2009 the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to indicate that hardly anyone can really multitask and they are only deluding themselves that they can.

In an interview with the PBS program Frontline, lead researcher Clifford Nass said that it is possible to multitask certain things if those require different parts of the brain. For example, one might be able to cook and keep an eye on the children, or do gardening while listening to music or drive while talking. But classical psychology says that when it comes to doing more than one task that requires similar cognitive abilities, the brain simply cannot do that. What people do is try to rapidly switch their attention from one task to the next.

Nass and his colleagues hypothesized that to carry out successful multitasking of this latter sort required three distinct skills. One is the ability to filter, to detect irrelevancy, to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not important. The second is the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next. The third is a greater ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.

The researchers expected to find that people who were 'high multitaskers', i.e., people who tend to do multiple things, would be very good at least in one of those areas when compared to the 'low multitaskers', i.e., people like me who have to do things sequentially. What they were surprised to find was that the high multitaskers were terrible in all three areas.

So we know, for example, that people's ability to ignore irrelevancy -- multitaskers love irrelevancy. They get distracted constantly. Multitaskers are very disorganized in keeping their memory going so that we think of them as filing cabinets in the brain where papers are flying everywhere and disorganized, much like my office.

And then we have them being worse at switching from one task to another. ... It's very troubling. And we have not yet found something that they're definitely better at than people who don't multitask.

There is a serious cost to this. The researchers say that trying to multitask leads to deficiencies in analytical reasoning because people don't stick to one thing long enough to think it through but instead shift to another task, thus thinking in fragments.

We worry about it, because as people become more and more multitaskers, as more and more people -- not just young kids, which we're seeing a great deal of, but even in the workplace, people being forced to multitask, we worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.

And it seems as if simply telling them that trying to multitask is bad does not have any effect.

One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they're great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.

[V]irtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. And even though I'm at the university and tell my students this, they say: "Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these".

One of the biggest delusions we hear from students is, "I do five things at once because I don't have time to do them one at a time." And that turns out to be false. That is to say, they would actually be quicker if they did one thing, then the next thing, then the next. It may not be as fun, but they'd be more efficient.

One interesting finding in the study was that there were no gender differences, which goes against the myth that women are either naturally good multitaskers or become so because of the multiple roles imposed on them by society, such as caregiver, housekeeper, breadwinner, etc. This may be an illusion that arose from the fact that the multiple tasks that they have traditionally had to do (keeping an eye on the children while cooking or cleaning the house and listening to the radio) largely involved different parts of the brain and thus did not pose any serious cognitive conflicts.

The big challenge will be how to wean people away from thinking they can multitask. We are not doing them any favors by letting them continue to delude themselves.


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I watched that episode of Frontline with my 18-year-old son, who texted on his phone the whole time. I suggested to him that social media and cell phone company advertisements have tricked his generation into thinking his relationships (and thus the need to constantly be in touch) are somehow more important than those of earlier generations. He didn't like that.

Posted by Scott on May 18, 2011 09:54 AM

Shalom Mano,

I've argued for years that multi-tasking is a myth.

Our brains are not parallel processors but function in the manner of the old IBM 3000 series which was capable of handling multiple jobs by operating in batch mode. Jobs were broken into packets that were then processed in one long queue. Because the computer could do this very quickly, it looked like it was multi-tasking but it wasn't. It could still only deal with one instruction at a time.

What it looked like if it was handling three jobs (A,B &C)was this: A1,B1,C1,A2,B2,C2,A3...

My students, of course, never believe me. I think I'd have to sit them down in an Active PET scan and show them what happens when they try to study and listen to music.



Posted by Jeff Hess on May 18, 2011 10:42 AM

I think this BBC video on the Mcgurk Effect is pretty good in demonstrating how difficult it is to multi-task

If we could multitask out eyes could see the 'fa' while our ears hear the 'ba.'

Posted by Henry on May 18, 2011 02:06 PM

Multitasking have been one of the most important issues in my work with computers. A great invention. Thanks for sharing this info!!!

Posted by Marcelo Como Seducir Mujeres on May 18, 2011 03:07 PM

I've been convinced by the evidence that multitasking is more inefficient in humans than singletasking, though it is difficult to stop myself from trying to do it.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that if I need to concentrate on primarily engaging only part of my brain sometimes I have to let the other part "idle" on something or else I get bored and lose focus. What I mean by this is when I was in high school english class I found i focused much better on the lecturing and class discussions if I passively doodled (i.e. I didn't think about it--just let my pencil make shapes). If I didn't do this I would inevitably start to day dream and completely lose the thread of the lecture.

I always thought that it might be that there were parts of my brain that were just not engaged by listening to literary discussion (not that there's anything wrong with that, I do love the stuff) so giving that part something to do that didn't require any actual attention stopped me from getting bored without losing my attention.

I wonder if I was just deluding myself or if there is a basis for this. What I have since read suggests I'm not wholey inaccurate, but I wouldn't mind getting an expert's opinion on the matter.

Posted by Jared A on May 18, 2011 05:43 PM

Jared A,

What you describe is consistent with what the researchers found. It is trying to do several cognitive tasks simultaneously that is the problem.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 18, 2011 09:14 PM

I've never been able to see those Magic Eye pictures either. I like to think that rather than there being something wrong with our brains, there are no hidden images and they are in fact a very successful ruse that we are to clever to fall for.

Posted by Alex on May 18, 2011 10:02 PM

I'm not a big fan of multi-tasking myself. Living with two teens, though, I often wonder if "multi-tasking" isn't really a code word for "give me control of how I take in information" When my kids are fully engaged in an activity of their own choosing (which recently for my son, sadly, has been drumming! ;-), I rarely see them try to multi-task.

One of the positives I see about multi-tasking is the push back against boredom as well as the entrenched social structures that promote said boredom.

P.S. I can never see those pictures either. Glad I'm not the only one. :-D

Posted by Tim on May 19, 2011 01:33 PM

I'm not great at multitasking. If I do two or even three things at once, the thing is, one result will be favorable and the rest embarrassing lol. Thanks for this info... makes me think that I'm all right.

Posted by Mae on May 20, 2011 01:37 PM

I have been known to participate in simulatenous conversations at gatherings or read while watching tv and listening to music, and to sleep during university class films and still be able to accurately discuss the film following the credits.

I have recently learned about cognitive disinhibition, which is frequently found in high IQ creative people - we can make intuitive leaps and connect seemingly unconnective information because we do not filtre information.

I think that multi-tasking is a capability in that spectrum range - but its' not just how many things you can do at a time, but how well you can do any of the things at a given time.

I would expect being able to jump from topic to topic or activity to activity with no break is also multitasking in a meaningful way

Posted by random ntrygg on May 20, 2011 06:26 PM

I like this article a lot. I now see that I should not really try so hard to be a multi-tasker.

I do have this strange problem though... not sure how related it is. It seems my thoughts are so scattered; jumping from one thought to the next, that it sometimes makes it very difficult to get anything done. I have found that I can listen to music to distract the part of my mind that is rummaging through thoughts and this allows me to focus and get stuff done.

As I have gotten older, sometimes it seems overwhelming. I have even thought about seeing a doctor about it, but I hate doctors... well, I hate going to see them.

I have always said to my friends that I wish I could meet someone or a group of people whom I could convey my thoughts too and they would go off and realize them and it would allow me to let go and relax and accomplish tasks. It's too bad there isn't some type of symbiotic relationship we could have like that; physically I mean.

Anyway... I enjoyed this article. I feel like it helped me to not worry so much about trying to multi-task... I am a hotshot video gamer and figured that multi-tasking was in my blood... but it looks like it is in no one's blood. hahah.

Posted by Thomas Talon on September 8, 2011 06:57 PM

I think it is possible it is possible to multitask things requiring different parts of the brain, like your examples of cooking whilst keeping an eye on the children, or gardening whilst listening to music, or driving at the same time as talking.

Thereafter, multi-tasking is for the women-folk.

Posted by Peter on December 6, 2011 05:48 PM