Does Multi-tasking Rot Your Brain?

In the middle of writing a final project report from my old company, I  read an interesting article by Walter Kirn on multi-tasking. According to the author, who cites actual science as evidence, we are all becoming progressively dumber due to doing two or three things at once. While talking on the cell phone, we become worse drivers and supposedly 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries occur due to cell phone use while driving each year. I am not sure how they arrive at these figures since I rather doubt that the highway patrol finds dead people with cell phones through their brains at the scene of accidents. When we get our statistics course on  line next year I intend to talk A LOT about questionable assumptions and sample sizes.

Let’s look at the issue of whether multi-tasking really does make us less efficient at processing information, and, if so, whether that matters. How can it possibly not matter? Well, if we look at one of the findings that concerned Mr. Kirn so much, college students who sorted cards and listened to random tones at the same time did just as well at the sorting  task but had more trouble remembering later on just what it was they were sorting. Who cares? I mean this very seriously. If you were sorting cards for some meaningless task for an experiment, would it matter at all to you the next day or even fifteen seconds later whether you were sorting by color, shapes, Zodiac signs or fruit vs. vegetable? Unless there was some kind of remembering-the-sort-category monetary prize, the answer is clearly,

“No, it would not matter at all that you did not store a certain piece of useless information in your long-term memory.”

I would argue that much of  what we are doing while multi-tasking involves the same sort of useless information. For example, the same article decries the fact that some number of adolescents do their homework while watching TV or listening to music on their iPods. This really is not a new phenomena. My aunts tell me that my grandmother was always yelling at them that they could not do their homework while listening to a radio program.

Truly, if you don’t remember what was on Sex and the City last week, it will not damage your chances of getting into Harvard. What about the homework? One of the reasons we started The Julia Training Institute is we believed that learning must become more interactive, interesting and intellectually challenging. If their homework is like most of what I had in high school, it really doesn’t matter much whether they remember the names of the seven Chinese poets whose work they had to read for some completely unfathomable reason.

The truth is, much of work is like this as well. When I get up in the morning, I usually listen to my voice mail and read my email at the same time, while drinking a cup of coffee. I delete all of the messages offering to sell me Viagara that somehow slipped through my spam filter, take two seconds to respond to the student who asked if I would be willing to serve as a reference (It would be my pleasure.) I also delete the voice mail messages from the carpet cleaner (I don’t need the carpets cleaned), write on my calendar the reminder from the dentist’s office that my appointment is on Thursday, and add it to Yahoo calendar so I will be sent an email and text message that morning.

When I need to focus, I would bet that I do the same as those teenagers when they really do have a challenging assignment. That is, I turn off everything else and focus on the matter at hand.

In my work life, I switch focus, a lot. I will work on a program to calculate statistics to test effectiveness of our training for parents of children in special education. Then I’ll switch to writing web pages for our next course to come on line, Developmental Psychology. After an hour, I might go on to working on a grant proposal, before going back to writing up the report on the statistical output from the program I wrote earlier. If need be, I can put everything aside and focus on one thing for sixteen hours a day, and sometimes that is warranted, but that is not usually how I work.

I am going to take the dissenting view on this one. I think technology has increased my productivity. I cannot imagine getting the amount of work done that I do if I did not have two things going at once for most of my waking hours.  So far, my brain seems to still be intact.

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  1. Yeah, I’ve noticed a rash of anti-multi-tasking. I’m not sure how that trend got started. My counter-argument is something like, “When you drive your car, do you only step on the gas pedal? Or do you also turn the steering wheel and watch the traffic? If you do all of the above, you are multi-tasking.” Perhaps talking on the cell while driving is going too far, but multi-tasking in and of itself is not a bad thing.

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