I have a bad habit of multitasking. I watch TV while I study, listen to music while I study, and hang out with friends while I study. Doing two things at once makes me feel as if I’m making better use of my time. But, interestingly, researchers have discovered that humans can’t actually multitask. What we call multitasking is really just quickly switching our attention from one activity to another. (This explains why it takes me twice as long to study when I “multitask.”)
Focusing on more than one task, however simple, can overwhelm the brain. Daniel Wessman, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, administered a test in which participants had to complete a task based on colored number pairs. The tests were implemented using an MRI scanner so Wessman could see how subjects’ brains responded.
If the number pair appeared in color A, the participant had to determine which of the two numbers was numerically greater. If the pair popped up in color B, the challenge was to decide which number’s font was a bigger point size. These are not difficult tasks, but the test showed that trying to do both simultaneously required the brain to pause before carrying out each task. Essentially, Wessman demonstrated that multitasking slows you down.
Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out, believes that multitasking is four times slower than doing one task at a time. She argues that not only do you lose time switching between tasks, you’re more likely to make mistakes, and you don’t retain as much information. “Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days” she says. “They’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic.”
The reason we can deftly shift our attention between two things is because it was evolutionarily beneficial to humans thousands of years ago when they were hunting animals much bigger and stronger than they were. The executive system in the frontal lobe allows a hunter to focus on where a wild animal is, then shift to where fellow hunters are, then shift to what tools or weapons are available, and so on. In part, this ability to shift our attention—not physical size or strength—helped humans become the dominant species.
But perhaps our inclination to multitask is no longer as beneficial as it once was. Nowadays, there are so many stimuli in our daily lives that it’s hard to sit down and focus on just one thing. In this digital age, we are constantly barraged with texts and emails, tweets and Snaps, not to mention animated billboards, television screens in public places, and downloadable content of every imaginable kind on our cell phones and electronic tablets.
Despite all the benefits that have come from the internet, one casualty has been downtime for our brains—moments during which a person can disconnect from work, school obligations, or even music and media. Freed from the constant bombardment of stimuli, the brain responds with increased creativity, stress reduction, and better recall.
We don’t yet know how teaching and learning will change as a result of this age of multitasking. Research has not determined exactly how it is impacting students. And how is multitasking affecting students who already struggle with focus and time management? Are there ways schools and parents can help? What kinds of materials should publishers develop? We don’t have the answers, but one thing is certain: The genie has emerged from the bottle, and he’s not going back inside anytime soon.
Did You Know?
Most people are under the impression that it’s always good to have options, and the more options, the better. But do you ever scroll through Netflix for hours and never actually land on anything to watch, thinking a better movie might come along? Or have you ever gone to buy something online, spend days scrolling through a ton of different websites, and then never actually buy anything? More options are not always a good thing; sometimes they can be debilitating.
There was a study done with jams (jams as in “products made by boiling fruit to a thick consistency without preserving the shape of the fruit,” not “crowds of cars impeding traffic flow” or “songs that rock”) where some customers were given the option of 24 jams, and others were given the option of only six. In each case on average, the customer tasted two jams, and though the larger selection drew in 60 percent of customers while the six jams drew in only 40 percent, 30 percent of people who sampled from the smaller selection ended up buying a jar of jam; only 3 percent of the people who tasted from the 24–jam selection ended up purchasing a jar.
How do we avoid being debilitated by too many options? Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, suggests getting comfortable with “good enough.” The New York Times article on the topic remarks that “seeking the perfect choice . . . ‘is a recipe for misery,’” according to Professor Schwartz. The article also states that even marriage is not exempt: Picking the “right” partner leads to unrealistic—and often unfulfilled—expectations.