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I recently overheard a proclamation, which has become somewhat of a mantra, recited by today’s college students. A student proudly making the following declaration regarding their ability to pay attention to multiple digital screens at once said, “Our brains are evolving to multitask!” That simple yet profound statement left me wondering could this really be true? How in one or two computerized generation of human beings could our brains evolve so dramatically? Is there such a thing as multitasking, and how is our performance affected when we are concurrently attending to computers, smart phones, and tasks? Recent research in neuroscience has shown that our brains are capable of forming new neural connections; known as neuroplasticity, but this student’s assertion seems to be pointing towards a rapid leap in evolution that goes well beyond that. Through my work in the field of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) I have come to regard, that what we commonly refer to as multitasking, does not exist, and that the level of our ability to perform tasks suffers as we shift our attention from one task to another. In fact the empirical data from studies in the field neuroscience is proving that there is no such thing as multitasking!

The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines multitasking as, “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer,” and “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time.” These two definitions delineate multitasking into two distinct categories. The first definition refers to performing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as driving while talking on speaker phone, listening to the radio, while at the same time trying to remember directions. The second definition is pointing towards moving from one task to another such as, text messaging, followed by shifting to doing homework on a computer, and shifting again to grab a hurried bite from a late dinner; over and over, again and again. Now consider that all of us, especially college students given their current digital computer screen oriented lifestyles, are doing more and more of this, all the time. If this is true, and I believe it is, we can see why it is good for our psyche’s to think we are evolving to do it.

So what exactly is the data derived from recent research into the field of multitasking showing? In the PBS Frontline presentation, digital_nation, by Douglas Rushkoff, and Rachel Dretzin, Dr. Clifford Nass is interviewed about his studies at Stanford University, on the performance levels of extreme multitaskers. “These are kids who are doing 5, 6, or more things at once all the time” (Nass, Webb). Contrary to the fact that most multitaskers think they are extremely good at it, the results of Nass’s first of its kind studies are troubling.

“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking! They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests that they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be we’re creating people who may not be able to think well, and clearly.” (Nass, Web)

Some people might argue that these studies are being done on extreme multitaskers, and that most people can juggle two or three tasks at once. However, there is research showing that performing even several tasks at once can affect a person’s performance. In the Myth of Multitasking, Christine Rosen, writes, “In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard, and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers” (Rosen, Web).

Taking a step back from the profound statement, “our brains are evolving to multitask,” let’s look at the question, are students developing new skills and competence that facilitates multitasking? In Electronic Media Use, Reading, and Academic Distractibility in College Youth, by Dr Laura E Levine, et al, findings are reported to show a correlation among college students between instant messaging, and reading skills. “The findings suggest that the amount of time college students spent instant messaging had an increased effect on their levels of distractibility in performing academic tasks, and that the amount of time they spent reading books reduced their levels of distractibility” (Levine, Web). For those that feel multitasking is not a bad thing the article concludes with the concession that there may be some positive new teaching methods that will emerge to hold the attention of students, such as, the use of video games to facilitate learning. Even with a few positive changes on the horizon the adverse effects of multitasking continue to be seen. In Multi-Tasking Adversely Affects the Brain’s Learning Systems by Russel Poldrack, he reports,

“The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember. Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don’t learn as well as if you had paid full attention. Tasks that require more attention, such as learning calculus or reading Shakespeare, will be particularly adversely affected by multi-tasking.” (Poldrack, Web)

In my experience there is a fundamental common sense to all this. If you focus all of your attention on one task at a time it seems logical that the results would be better than if your attention is divided or distracted by other tasks. Our children may argue they are evolving to move beyond this, yet the data supports what our mothers and generations before us always knew as they gave advice such as, “Finish what you are doing!”

In our culture there is certainly a perception that people can successfully multitask, and a belief that the more that we do it the more efficient at it we become. After all, most of us would say we are multitasking many times during the day. So what are the motivations behind all our multitasking? In her blog article Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention, Linda Stone makes a distinction between simple multitasking, and what cognitive scientists refer to as complex multitasking, to explain her theory of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). In simple multitasking each task is given the same priority. One task may even be routine like stirring pasta while talking to our spouse. Stone claims the driving force in simple multitasking is to be more productive. In complex multitasking the motivation is not to miss anything by maintaining a field of CPA. “In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition” (Stone, Web). One of these cognitive tasks may also seem more important than another requiring our brains to be focused on it while remaining alert to the several other less important cognitive tasks requiring our attention. Stone continues, “ When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially” (Stone, Web)

Stone’s theory of CPA is supported in the article Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, by Eyal Opher, et al. The abstract of their study states the following surprising findings, “that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” It is important to note Stone’s CPA is not multitasking, rather she is referring to the kind of attention we hold while we are complex multitasking. Keeping our attention in this state of hyper-vigilance is keeping our fight or flight response activated. According to Stone some people will feel a feeling of being alive, on top of things, and connected. She concedes this can serve us well at times. However, Stone claims the shadow side of being on continuous continuous partial attention (CCPA) is a constant activation of the fight or flight response. The complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation, with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress related diseases. This holds true with my own experiences of hearing about and seeing the conditions that create stress in the lives of participants in MBSR programs.

Indeed, neuroscientists are discovering that different parts of the brain are switching on and off resulting in the serial processing that Stone references. This switching happens so fast that it appears we are performing multiple tasks simultaneously. We can conclude that contrary to the first definition of multitasking, “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer,” that our brain does not process tasks concurrently. Regarding the second definition of multitasking, the performance of multiple tasks at the same time,” we see we are not really performing tasks at the same time, but instead switching back and forth between them, and some of us are experiencing being in an unfulfilled state of continuous partial attention. In an NPR Morning Edition story, Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again, Jon Hamilton quotes, Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT; “that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time when in fact you are not.” Many naysayers may try to say this is simply a semantic argument, and to some degree, I would agree. Words are divisive by nature and often fall short in truly representing what they are meant to describe. Perhaps it is time to throw out the word multitasking, as the definitions no longer fit and invent words that better represent our current scientific understanding of the way our brains function. How about serialtasking or taskswithcing?

If we identify that our lives have sped up to a point that may be causing us physical harm, and have a desire to do something about it, there are several antidotes to our cultural addiction of the illusion multitasking. This will require a change that most people may be resistant to make. In the article Mastering Multitasking by Urs Gasser, and John Palfrey the authors suggest, “ We have to embrace and master it, while providing limits from time to time to create contemplative space for young people” (Gasser, Web). We can focus more on individual tasks by bringing a strong mindful awareness to our actions while performing them. By taking breaks and time outs we can shift our attention back to our senses. In one sense I’m hopeful as I see a cultural shift, perhaps as a backlash, to all the stimulation, to embrace mindfulness. Alternatively letting go of even one aspect of mutitasking, like text messaging, can be painful for some people let alone shutting down and going offline.

The empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that there is no such thing as multitasking. Multitasking is a misnomer. The word points to something that at best can be looked at as individual tasks being performed through a very rapid switching back and forth in the way our brains function, or through performing tasks with continuous partial attention. Research particularly in the field of neuroscience is compiling data that shows multitasking can negatively affect performance, and lead to increased levels of stress. We are all part of one big current cultural experiment where we are the scientists, the laboratory, and the results, and it is not a trivial matter. The quality of our lives and health, may depend on our ability to truly understand, and wisely manage the effects of our perceptions, beliefs, and actions, surrounding our illusion of multitasking.

Works Cited

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-webster.com. Apr. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2011

Dretzin, Rachel. Rushkoff, Douglas. “digital_nation life on the virtual frontier.” pbs.org Frontline. Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Rosen, Christine. “The Myth of Multitasking.” The New Atlantis thenewatlantis.com. Spring 2008. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Levine, Laura E. Waite, Bradley M. Bowman, Laura L. “Electronic Media Use, Reading, and Academic Distractibility in College Youth.” Cyber Psychology & Behavior Vol. 10 Issue 4 Aug. 2007. EBSCOhost. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

Poldrack, Russell. “Multi-Tasking Adversely Affects the Brain’s Learning Systems.” psych.ucla.edu. Jul. 2006. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Stone, Linda. “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention.” Lindastone.net. Nov. 2009. Wen. 14 Apr. 2011.

Hamilton, Jon. “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.” npr.org. NPR Morning Edition. Oct. 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.

Ophir, Eyal. Nass, Clifford. Wagner, Anthony D. “Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” PNAS.org. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Jul. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.

Gasser, Urs. Palfrey, John. “Mastering Multitasking.” Educational Leadership Mar 2009: Vol. 66, Issue 6. EBSCOHost. Web. 16 Apr. 2011.

About The Author

Allan Goldstein is an experienced MBSR teacher, facilitating group programs, personal coaching, and mentoring in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction through Mindful Coaching. He assists the UCSD CFM in business development and social media marketing…one task at a time.