Saturday, July 09, 2011

Putting Multitasking In Perspective

(Reblogged from Inside Higher Ed and Now You See It)

One of the things I enjoy so much about retirement is more freedom and opportunity than ever to come across people who make Durham such an intriguing place to live.

Below is a very interesting out-take about "multitasking” from a June 24th interview by Serena Golden, an editor at Inside Higher Ed with Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson, author of a soon-to-be released new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

For skimmers, I’ve italicized some comments that were particularly interesting or enlightening to me. 

Q – Serena Golden: You’re critical of recent studies on the impact of multitasking. Why is that, and how do you think the topic could more fruitfully be studied?

A – Cathy Davidson: In many of the hand-wringing and fear-mongering studies reported in the popular press, “multitasking” as a category can be ill-defined, vague, imprecise and subjective. I find it exasperating and belated. We now know there is no such thing as monotasking on a neurological level. Neurons are always firing and the brain is constantly chattering to itself, calling upon different areas at once to respond in ways we are only now beginning to understand. Lately, neuroscientists have begun to take ancient Eastern practices of meditation seriously, since those are founded in the principle that a quiet, resting, contemplating mind is ever-susceptible to distraction: that’s why meditation is a lifelong pursuit, not something you can do just by closing your eyes. The studies that try to make it seem as if multiple external distractions (new e-mail or digital environments) are somehow, in themselves, harming our very brains or shrinking our capacity to pay attention miss the point.

Of course these new practices change our brains in some ways — that’s what learning is. And of course cultural tastes and habits (novels, movies, T.V., video games, etc.) happen all the time. Yet the gloom-and-doom studies make it seem as if we’ve never experienced multiple tasks at once before. They often measure the dire results either through self-reporting (which the gorilla experiment shows us is notoriously inaccurate) or controlled laboratory experiments that have little to do with how we live our lives. Ask an insurance adjuster and you’ll hear that, of course teens texting while driving can have accidents, but if you really want to protect your kid, don’t let him drive with friends in the car. Similarly, the distractions that most often lead to accidents are the fight with your lover, a tenure meeting, hearing a frightening medical diagnosis, or anticipating a job interview. We tend not to think of those things as “multitasking.” Yet physical and emotional distractions — heartburn or heartache — are far more distracting than anything the modern office can throw at us.

History is also useful here. Legislators wanted to prevent Motorola from putting radios in dashboards in 1930 because they thought they would lead to highway catastrophe. Now we know the distraction of the radio helps truckers counteract the monotony of long-distance driving.

When we say “multitasking is bad,” what we are really saying is that certain things are stressing us out and they are making us suddenly aware of behaviors that used to be so reflexive we didn’t even pay attention to them. We see the gorilla, as it were. That’s not always a bad thing. On the other hand, if the issue is that Americans are working too hard at our jobs — and we’re now working more hours per year than our parents did or than their parents did (and more than anyone in the world except South Koreans), then we should be addressing that real problem. Work speed-up and overload has social, economic, political and indeed cognitive consequences. In this situation, multitasking is the smokescreen for a much larger societal problem.

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