Stanford university scientists have confirmed what holistic healers have intuitively known all along, that multitasking is not healthy, let alone deeply satisfying. In this blog-article, i will first review these findings (Section A) and conclude with a brief analysis of the data from the viewpoint of happiness medicine (Section B).
Multitaskers have been unmasked to be “suckers of irrelevancy”
Many of the multitaskers i know tend to be type A personality, they feel as if they need to prove that they are Darwin’s selected cream of the evolutionary crop, it seems.
“High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments” (1)
I’ve even heard that some multitaskers claim, without evidence, that they have been endowed with a multitasking gene, born to be good at doing several things at once. Many also believe that the more tasks they multiply the better the performance.
After putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.
“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them….. When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.” (2) (Source)
This piece of corroboration confims what we have known all along, that the brain is not designed to process more than one stream of information at the same time.
The study’s lead author Eyal Ophir, a researcher at Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab and his colleagues ran tests on a hundred students, specifically looking for what gave multitaskers their edge in processing multiple streams of information. Subjects where split into two groups, those who were heavy media multitaskers and those who weren’t. They ran them through three different types of attention tests.
“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir The first run of test left the heavy media multitaskers (HMM) coming in significantly behind the second group. Low multitaskers (LM) had no problem with the test requiring them to delinate red triangles in different positions whilst filtering out the blue rectangles. The researchers concluded this was due to multitaskers being unable to ignore multiple stimuli. But they assumed this may be because the multitaskers had a better memory than the low multitasekrs.
However when subjects sat the memory test, a sequence of letters repeating themselves, the heavy media multitaskers were unable to recall the repeating letters to the same degree the low multitaskers had.
“The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.” (Ibid)
The researchers then conducted a third test. If the heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else ?
“The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants. Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.” (Ibid)
“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.” (Ibid)
The study’s Conclusion:
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.” (Ibid)
Discussion & Joie de Vivre
At this point, the Stanford researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could..
It appears that multitaskers are unable to filter out what is relevant to their goal or objective. They become distracted and slowed down by irrelevant information.
There is also the neuro-peptide question. Perhaps multitasking gives them a rush of reward boosting Dopamine ? As both this rush and cell phones are addictive, getting back so a slower mode of activity may become quite difficult.
There is also the issue of Happiness and Joie de vivre. While it may be momentarily satisfying to think that multiple tasks are getting done simultaneously, it remaind difficult to fully appreciate and enjoy each task, if only because the brain does appear to have been designed to be fully aware on one stream of events at a time. For example, making making love fast while listening to a talk show and looking at one’s cell phone does appear to be deeply enjoyable, nor eating, watching television an arguing politics simultaneously. Worse, this last activity is know to proceeded gastrointestinal issus, including ulcers.
Though this Standard study was focused on media multi-tasking, I find that it applies to all spheres of activity. Including eating, as i will show in the next blog-article. Even though the multitasks think they are taking better than others, it is not because one thinks that that this thought is true. Car drivers who have a few alcohol drinks also think they are driving great, yet their reaction time and cognitive skills are impaired. Same goes with doing anything too fast, especially when there is multitasking. I remember that one of my political science professors talking about former Presdient Charles de Gaulle and on what was his secret for having accomplished so much in his lifetime. The explanation the Professor gave was that De Gaulle did only one thing at a time, but that he immersed himself totally into that one thing and performed it with excellence.
Christian Joubert. (HMI director and CSO)
Text still under construction
Reference and Precision Notes