Google could be your twin moron if you do not make it your slave
Big loose shirt dress, fluffy pillow, cool rain outside, uncombed morning hair, really good fiction. Except for the book that requires my full attention to matter, the rest would require a one-time or no effort on my part at all. Those were the days.
Now, some powerful presence stalks even my most coveted moments because I have surrendered to it gradually. It is the "smart presence" – phone, iPad, laptop – and it is making me dumb in many ways.
In 2015, I wrote about this based on the findings of a couple of studies then and a very thoughtful article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin who has been studying the effects of multitasking on the brain. I said then that multitasking cultivates our "inner moron." Three years later in 2018, things have even looked better for our inner moron.
Late last year, a group of researchers reviewed existing studies and published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. They reviewed literature relevant to multitasking and performance on essential mental processes involved in conscious learning. This includes tests on memory (long-term and working memory), attention, task switching, inhibitory control (ability to keep on task), and relational reasoning (ability to fill in gaps in a logical series). They wanted to see how these aspects of conscious learning is affected by the extent one engages in multitasking.
The researchers did this by creating an index by which one can see the extent of how many media streams one engages in a typical hour. The media streams included print media, TV, video on a computer, music, nonmusical audio, video or computer games, phone, IM/chat, text messaging, email, reading on the computer, and other computer applications. The higher the index, the heavier of a multitasker one is. The review did not focus on how the extent of multitasking affected "real world" tasks like cooking, sleeping, studying for a test, or reviewing for a work presentation. The findings revealed that except for one – task switching – the heavy multitaskers underperformed in all of the domains of learning. This means they could have done better if they went easy on the number of media streams they engaged in at a given time.
If you were a researcher involved in this study, the next step would be to qualify your findings and point to possible areas of future research. In fact, they naturally included questions that future research should target: Are there stretches in human development where the human brain is particularly sensitive to the effects of media multitasking? What kind of media, or a combination of them, affects which kind of aspect in conscious learning? Are there even positive gains from media multitasking?
But as a person who is immersed in a world where the mediascape is expanding in accelerated rates – which means most people, including the researchers – we would have to make a call on how to live with this expanding mediascape without jamming our brains, based on the existing information we have right now. And this review is the existing information we have right now. And it is not looking good for heavy multitaskers.
The main explanation that the researchers offered is that heavy multitasking really disrupts attention, and attention is essential to sustain a path towards a goal. Look at it this way, if you need to get to a place and get distracted by the many things along the way, either you will never get to that place you need to be or you will never get there on time.
It is the same when you need to understand a topic. You need to give it more than just a passing attention. Reading one blog or Wikipedia entry is just the first inhale of the hundreds of thousands or millions of "mindbreaths" you take for your journey to understand. Google, the great portal to infinite information, could be your twin moron if you do not make it your slave. You have to curate your search to make sure it is not too narrow that you only see one path to get there (especially if you look only for things that confirm your own convictions) but at the same time, and with as much care, you check against mere distractions. Also you will find that this seemingly singular focused path, like reading or writing a book, is not really a monotoned, monotextured journey.
Generally, it is harder to stay focused because that requires more brain resources, as you have to wall yourself from unnecessary distractions which are more than the target of your focus. Adolescents may have to try harder as the research also found that adolescents underperformed significantly in the tasks compared to young adults. This should sound alarm bells since the same study cited that across many countries, young people spend about 9 hours multimedia tasking, exclusive of the multimedia use in school. In terms of how their brains looked like when tasked with sentence comprehension during heavy multitasking, the brain region associated with conscious learning (cognition) showed greater activity, which showed that the brain was struggling to zero in on what the sentence meant, given the many slings of media arrows it was distracted with.
Paulo Cardini is a designer who, back in 2012 in a Ted Talk, talked about a project he was embarking on to downgrade his smartphone. He makes a case for never losing the need for "monotasking" even if we have to multitask many times in a day. People my age who straddle stretches of technology periods when monotasking was more prevalent than multitasking have embedded in our brains a memory of the feeling of fulfillment that monotasking brings. Our nostalgia for monotasking could save our brains.
Those who have been born at a time when multitasking is already the norm may need to discover that with a lot more effort. Start with a book, even an audiobook. Your mind on an audiobook – just on that at one time – for even an hour a day. I do not do anything else, not even Google a concept I come across in the book, while on it. I have been experimenting on this as part of my everyday negotiation with smart tech. Will let you see how it goes. – 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." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.