We witness it every time we step out of the house; children, young adults and even fully mature individuals, navigating the keys of a cell phone with one hand while the other maneuvers a steering wheel or handlebars of a motorcycle.
The underlying contention is that they’re successfully both driving their vehicle and using their phone, or ‘multi-tasking’, something which psychiatrist Edward Hallowell in his book CrazyBusy, describes as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one”.
As explained by psychologist Susan Weinschenk in her article The True Cost of Multi-tasking in Psychology Today, for the most part, ie for all activities requiring any conscious mental activity, human beings do not have the capacity to actually multi-task; what we do is more correctly referred to as ‘task-switching’ ie the juggling between two or more tasks rapid enough to give the illusion of simultaneity. And while this is usually put-up with as part of the over-enterprising culture of the today’s office life, research is drawing widespread concern that multi-tasking is going to drive the current generation — ‘Generation M’ as its being labeled — to ruins.
A publication by the American Psychological Association, Multitasking: Switching Costs, explains that the human brain is not wired to multi-task — be it mythical multi-tasking, task-switching or even attempting two separate tasks in rapid succession. Due to underlying mechanisms such as ‘rule activation’ or ‘goal switching’, even alternating between two tasks in a controlled manner is highly counterproductive — not only do errors skyrocket, but the time surreptitiously consumed by the aforementioned mechanisms is such that, compared with single-tasking, you actually lose productivity through a multi-tasking session by up to 40%.
The effects of multi-tasking go far, far beyond. Russell Poldrack, psychology professor at UCLA, has found that multi-tasking (think: seemingly innocuous distractions when concentrating) actually changes the way people assimilate knowledge, causing the recruitment of a part of the brain actually meant for learning physical skills. Students who multi-task thus fail to integrate what they learn into a ‘network of information’. As a result, they also lose the ability to ‘extrapolate’ that is they simply can’t recruit the accumulated information into unchartered territory. In other words, the information stays restricted to what can only be described as a ‘higher form of rote-learning’ — with knowledge failing to extend beyond the walls of the classroom.
Not surprisingly thus, Time’s The Multi-tasking Generation reports how veteran college professors in top institutions in the US, such as Donald Roberts at Stanford, are complaining that the modern-day college undergraduate, while demonstrating encyclopedic levels of information, nonetheless lacks theme, consistency and depth in his or her work.
But that’s just the half of it. Have you increasingly noticed people looking here and there while you speak to them, or worse still texting at the same time? In CrazyBusy, Hallowell identifies ‘attention-deficit trait’ (ADT) — a new condition in which people acquire the inability to concentrate, and purely as a result of routinely overloading themselves with information.
Now, if you’ve read Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence, you know that the heart of all healthy social exchanges — and empathy itself — is paying attention to others. Some researchers argue that multi-tasking is acceptable in one particular condition: when performing highly practiced actions. So, doing your laundry while talking on the phone is fine. Just, for the sake of being socially intelligent, think to reconsider if alongside you’re playing the confidant in someone’s life when they’re contemplating a separation with their spouse — an endeavour acquiring ADT is not going to aid in.
All in all, if you find yourself frustrated that we’ve become a society characterised by individuals living lives dominated by small talk and superficial, inferior renditions of every aspect of human experience — social, intellectual, culinary even — then you know one area that forms part of the afore’s etiology.
Multi-tasking has become an epidemic, and in all likelihood none of us have been left unblemished. If ‘Generation M’ is going to retain the ability to engage in poignant exchanges with fellow human beings, absorb intellectual treasures to their fullest and even just appreciate fine food, let’s not wait and turn the clock around on this foolishness.
The author is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Find out more at
www.facebook.com/scholarsbyprofession, or reach Haris at [email protected]
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2013.
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