Interestingly, I'm reading Lifehacker while posting this
August 21, 2008 8:29 AM   Subscribe

"Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on." posted by jbickers (27 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The Atlantic's ability to produce content-free lawn warden masturbation never ceases to amaze me.
posted by nasreddin at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's not really much substance to most of these articles. Anyway, what _is_ multitasking? We never use one part of our brain exclusively to do anything.
posted by mateuslee at 8:57 AM on August 21, 2008

Bullshit, I'm reading this on my iPhone while driving, and extra pepperoni.
posted by spiderwire at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2008 [29 favorites]

MeFi doesn't do articles that criticize the internet or multi-tasking well. As I've said before, it's like discussing alcoholism in a liquor store.
posted by proj at 9:28 AM on August 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

Look out Watch me Hear this Careful!
posted by mandal at 9:44 AM on August 21, 2008

Great post, though I interpret multi-tasking/non-linear thinking as a positive thing. Also, the author of The Atlantic article has some misguided interpretations of some of these experiments.

What does this mean in practice? 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.

Case in point: subjects were essentially listening to deliberately distracting stimuli - this is different than a "task" that has information which can be meaningfully interpreted and ignored. Random, irritating sounds are not often something that can be ignored, and so will have a different impact on a person's concentration and cognition.
posted by tybeet at 9:46 AM on August 21, 2008

Neal Stephenson on why he is a bad correspondent summarizes much of my own feelings towards multitasking - or more specifically, why I feel like to really, REALLY get something done (and done well), I need about 2 hours uninterrupted warmup time and the expectation of at least 2 hours uninterrupted cool-down time. Basically... all day.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:47 AM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Actually let me rephrase that: I mean to say that their multi-tasking is essentially overlapping to an extent that often does not occur. Like the OP said, reading LifeHacker and these articles - is a different kind of multitasking than trying to catch signals from an assortment of distracting tones. When you read two different things at once you can "switch on" and "switch off" what you're trying to make meaning out of - the overlap isn't continuous as the experiment he mentions is.
posted by tybeet at 9:50 AM on August 21, 2008

Also: the damaging influence of leaving that TV on in the background, on children's development of attention span.
posted by tybeet at 9:56 AM on August 21, 2008

I'm sure the brain is multitasking all the time. I know that it is. But I still have concluded that it's inefficient to shift my conscious attention rapidly from project to project. I feel like I'm doing more, but in reality, I'm doing less. At some point I realized that I've become 'addicted' to novel inputs every few minutes. Lately, I'm trying to focus for lengthier periods on single tasks.

Now, back to the report I'm writing.
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2008

To paraphrase some Asian guy: In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble.
posted by moonbiter at 10:42 AM on August 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm a middle-school teacher. NOT multi-tasking is NOT an option. I'm always amused by how-to's that imply you are able to choose to do one thing at a time, ever.

That said, I like David Allen's GETTING THINGS DONE as a good system for the three or four twenty-minute stretches of the day when I can actually do things in order.
posted by Peach at 10:45 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm with tybeet. You can't claim that "neuroscience is confirming" your point by vaguely referencing a couple of studies, and liberally construing the results of another.
posted by aparrish at 11:00 AM on August 21, 2008

Yeah.... as both a writer working from home on fierce deadlines and a parent of two small children, this whole "Stop multi-tasking!" concept seems like a sick joke. A sweet, sweet, delightfully tempting sick joke, but still. The reality of my life is that if I stop multi-tasking, shit stops getting done. Okay, back to the 50 chapters I have to write in the next 8 weeks.
posted by mothershock at 11:25 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Multitasking is the art of distracting yourself from two things you'd rather not be doing by doing them simultaneously.
posted by Eideteker at 11:32 AM on August 21, 2008 [26 favorites]

It depends on what you mean by 'multitask' I mean, if you're using separate parts of your mind, it's not hard. Like showering and thinking about math, or listening to music while playing video games. That kind of thing.

On the other hand, if you're talking about two 'intellectual' tasks I think anyone who says they can multitask at anything like their full mental capacity is probably not very talented overall.
posted by delmoi at 11:47 AM on August 21, 2008

Jeez, man, I guess I should get back to work.
posted by klangklangston at 11:52 AM on August 21, 2008

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.

How is this bad? When learning pretty much anything, the desired end result is being able to do the task without having to think about it. If the subjects of the study had been doing the task for years, they would be doing it without thinking even without any kind of distraction.

Being able to multi-task effectively is a sign that you're actually good at the tasks you are performing.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:42 PM on August 21, 2008

I can see the merit of total dedication to tasks that take real brain power. But some things that you don't really need to think about too much are very easy to multi-task and I'm sure, increase productivity by stopping boredom.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:55 PM on August 21, 2008

I'm listening to a slow and easy Led Zeppelin groove as I formulate this comment, which leads me to wonder, what's the difference between negative multitasking (ie: concentration overload) and setting up a mood?

That said, I do think that multitasking is a myth (you just bounce back and forth from one task to the other to the other at more or less the speed of light) unless you've mastered something to the point of muscle memory, at which point you really are doing two things at once. For instance, I'm really good a driving home slightly stoned, staying on the road and keeping within the speed limit, enjoying the tunes I'm listening to ... and having NO MEMORY of the drive itself afterward. Not that I'm proud of it.
posted by philip-random at 2:16 PM on August 21, 2008

posted by loquacious at 2:44 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The beginning of this article seems to speak the most to me. We have somehow decided that, culturally and technologically, it is better to have things around that allow this wonderful, often mismatched set of features that inevitably cause accidents -- like you know, the cel phone that takes videos, pictures, allows email, sms, gps, etc. that are all too alluring to not grab while speeding down the highway.

That type of multi-tasking is almost always a recipe for disaster either in the immediate or the eventual.

Of course, sitting at a computer these days it becomes hard NOT to multitask. Every browser iteration coming out these days has multi-tasking capabilities that are always touted as improvements. At this very moment i've got two sidebars and 9 tabs open. That's just the nature of the internet... maybe.

What i got from this article (albeit indirectly) was valuable. I do think that often we choose to do too many things at once for no good reason. We get so wrapped up in our capacity to juggle that we forget that some things are too important to be distracted while doing.

Why would we want to fill our lives with so many things that we simply don't have time to do one thing at once anymore? What is the benefit of having to multitask constantly from the second you wake up to the second you pass back out?

The article also reminded me of a TEDtalk that i watched recently given by a psychologist by the name of Barry Schwartz called 'The Paradox of Choice' (Link). You don't have to watch it, but the audio is worth considering.
posted by phylum sinter at 2:45 PM on August 21, 2008

To me this explains why if I want to actually REMEMBER an article that I read, I need to read it in print - and not online while I'm also reading five things at once. I suppose I could read things online one at a time, but WHAT FUN IS THAT?

Maybe I should y'know, finish reading the article, while I'm also commenting on it.

I was going to say that I don't think this is a multi-tasking issue so much as a "the internet is distracting" issue, and then while I was typing out that comment, I realized that I was proving the opposite of my point since the only times I can read and do ANYTHING else are times when the "anything else" is limited to background noise. D'oh.

Down with multitasking because I suck at it!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:46 PM on August 21, 2008

I find that if I concentrate on just one thing at a time, I can put an upper limit on the number of things I'm stuffing up.
posted by pompomtom at 10:53 PM on August 21, 2008

My first thought upon waking up this morning was that I forgot to include the [via] for this story ... sorry, JD!
posted by jbickers at 4:38 AM on August 22, 2008

I agree with Peach. Teaching in a middle school or high school setting necessitates multi-tasking, no matter how unpleasant it may be.

I'm sure if we had more than 30-60 minutes per day to deal with the stuff that comes up over the course of the week, not to mention staying on top of lessons and curricula (hopefully formulated in the summer months), teachers would be able to drill-down and focus on specific tasks.

I am never in the zone at school for planning and focusing, unfortunately. There are too many other required attention-getters pulling teachers like me in ten different directions. Some districts/schools require teachers to check email every period/hour, for example.

I think GTD at school is ultimately an uphill battle. Even if a teacher were to keep his emails short and to the point, he'd still get the monolithic one-paragraph block of 16 point comic sans in cobalt blue with the huge signature at the bottom in response.
posted by vkxmai at 7:28 PM on August 22, 2008

How is this bad? When learning pretty much anything, the desired end result is being able to do the task without having to think about it.

In most things my goal is to continually learn and improve my skill or efficiency. Which demands attention. I generally lose interest (and flow) when I stop learning and like Eideteker start cultivating my skill at multi-tasking mainly to stay engaged.
posted by Manjusri at 10:08 PM on August 22, 2008

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