[Science Solitaire] Multi-taskers as no-taskers
Mothers are universally perceived to be the quintessential multi-taskers although I do not know any scientific study yet that validates this. My own mother, especially when we were still kids, could be cooking but like a Swiss knife with all other implements pulled out, she would also be sewing a torn school uniform, setting the table, preparing our bath and scolding me, within the same stretch of time.
My two siblings and I have always been in awe of her multi-tasking powers and this was even more heightened when she told us that it was because she had eyes at the back of her head. This meant she could see us even as her back was turned. But one time while she was napping, we all checked her head to look for that eye. We did not find it but for a long time, we still were convinced it was the family secret.
Now that I am much older and assuming that my mother does not read this, I now ask, does multi-tasking really accomplish anything?
‘Media multitasking’ is self-deafeating
Clifford Nass is a psychology professor at Stanford University, who studies human interactions with machines, so it includes all the things that computers offer – FB, Twitter, chats, video games etc. The simultaneous engagement with these media channels is called “media multitasking.”
You see this octopus-wanna-be attempt as a widespread phenomenon among teenagers but full-blown adults and older people also do this, with greater consequences at work and at home. I first came across Nass’ published scientific study in 2009 entitled, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” in which he tested media multi-taskers in different aspects of processing information. You will be surprised at what he found out.
Nass found out that multi-tasking is essentially self-defeating since if you were a media octopus, you would end up doing much less than you have set out to do or than you think you did. This is because you did not really take yourself to multi-task but rather you just multi-switch.
Nass found that if you simultaneously engage more than two media, you cannot filter what is irrelevant. If you cannot filter, I am guessing that you would do worse in responding thoughtfully according to priorities. You would just treat all the inputs with equal weight and give in to them. Everything becomes significant – a friend’s post about her depressive bouts would be in the same “grab gallery” of a media octopus as a friend’s post about being disappointed with her new shoes.
And you, the media octopus will answer both from same emoticon menu, as others going on in your chat room and inbox, not to mention, your text messages.
You, the media multi-tasker also end up with a disorganized closet of a working memory. A working memory is that facility in our brain that files away information in categories so that you can readily recall them when needed. Nass found out in his study that multi-tasking makes a mess of our working memory, mislabelling information.
Another study in 2010 led by Etiene Koechlin of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie found out by looking at brain scans of people trying to do two or more things, that we really can only manage to do two things at once. She thinks that based on the scans, it is because the reward system of doing two things can only be each managed by the hemispheres and more than that, it gets lost in the labyrinth.
This is an initial study and I think does not address the things that we have to do even if we do not find them rewarding. However, the feelings of being rewarded is what leads to an addiction to doing things that we no longer enjoy or benefit from.
Last week, Nass was a repeat guest at NPR.org and though, yet lacking in any neuro-biological anchors, it seemed to me that media multi-tasking has taken on some coordinates that could qualify it as an “addiction.” Nass has continued to work on this topic and his latest finding brings even worse news for multi-taskers: you cannot turn it off.
Worse, the subjects he tested thought they could and did but by the measures, they did not. This is because as Nass put it, “while the brain is plastic, it is not elastic.” Unlike a rubber band, it cannot easily snap back to a former glory.
Nass was careful to differentiate between tasks that allow you to do several things toward the same goal. I think an example would be if you are working on a specific presentation and you are reading a relevant book for insights, Googling for relevant images, and at the same time, emailing your colleagues about what to send you for inclusion in your presentation. This is the same as a musician playing the piano, manually writing up the corresponding notes on a sheet, and humming those notes. Those make up what Nass calls “integrative” – towards the same goal.
But doing FB posts on various things, watching MTV, texting your friends about your boss, sending a photo of what you just ordered in a resto and tweeting where you are about to go next – all at the same time is media multi-tasking. And multi-media tasking, Nass found, makes us, well, losers.
So was my mom just under the illusion that she was accomplishing anything doing everything at the same time? Nass said that women (not necessarily mothers) are really better multi-taskers in the real world but in media multi-tasking, they suck equally with men.
My mom did most of her “multi-tasking mothering” in the 70s, long before this current media madness. And she did raise 3 kids. So unless I can submit her to a scientific study (a feat which, if you knew my mother would be herculean), I can only assume and attribute it, for my own sake, to that hidden eye at the back of her head. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Multiple hands image by shutterstock
Screaming lady image by shutterstock