Multitasking Fail October 4, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Science.
Tags: Stanford study on multitasking
The dangers of multitasking while driving are obvious, and many states are outlawing the most egregious forms of it, such as texting.
There is also evidence that more benign forms of multitasking such as studying and watching TV make us less efficient and less able to focus—our brains are just not capable of simultaneously performing two tasks that require attention. However, I have always thought it plausible that multitasking is something that we might become better at with more practice.
The primary finding was that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” When people spend months and years trying to multitask, their mental habits follow. Most important, their capacity to filter out distractions and irrelevant items deteriorates. As one of the researchers put it, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy.” The researchers set up experiments that isolated the ability to ignore things that didn’t help subjects complete a problem, and low-multitaskers did well, high-multitaskers poorly.
They also did some memory tests. Result: “The low multitaskers did great,” [researcher] Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”
Finally, they did a test of concentration and the pattern held.
“Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. ‘They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,’ Ophir said. ‘The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.'”
So all those fans of multitasking who claimed that the interactive, multiplicitous Web was altering people’s brains may have been right. Altering them, though, for the worse.
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