Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You Think You Can Multi-task?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
You’ve probably read all about it. People who multi-task are no good at anything they do while multi-tasking, other than switching from one task to another.

That’s what the latest report says from a study by Stanford University. This is backed by findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Is there anything new here?


What’s new, or relatively so, is a fashionable idea that multi-tasking is a real cool thing to do, that doing two or more things at once can be effective. Anyone young and mentally agile can multi-task effectively.


Where did this come from? This myth that some people, that anyone can effectively multi-task?

17,800 hits

In October 2001, Marc Prensky claimed that so-called digital natives “like to parallel process and multi-task”. This line has been quoted ad nauseam since then, to the degree that You have to multi-task! has become a work-place maxim.

A Google of the quoted phrase is likely to return at least 17,800 hits! Check it out.

Almost everything I read to do with multi-tasking seems to subject me to a brain-wash-like repetition that there are two species of people – those who can multi-task and those who cannot. On a number of occasions I have been told verbosely that these groups fall into the respective categories of so-called digital-natives and digital-immigrants.

Tragic statistical evidence

A recent legislation in New Zealand will outlaw driving while using a mobile phone, whether txting or in audio-conversation. That is unless dispensation is given for hands-free usage for specific purposes. Many other countries have already brought in similar legislation.

The decision to legislate was based on the tragic statistical evidence that people, no matter what their age
no matter what their mental ability, are incapable of giving their all to the important task of driving a vehicle when busy with another mind-engaging activity, such as using a phone. The move has considerable support from industry.

Thank goodness the legislators have managed to get it right. They have recognised that there can be serious consequences to assuming that when we see young kids engrossed in playing with new technology, their brains must work differently from their parents.

I am heartened that at least the concepts of so-called digital-native and digital-immigrant are shifting. Some of the changes come from people who are younger than half my age. That makes me feel good.

related post - > ( 1 )

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes


The upsycho said...

While I keep hearing the sexist nonsense that it is women who can multitask and men who cannot.

Radio 4 discussed a research project on the subject (may even have been the one you refer to) some time back. Apparently no-one can really multitask effectively.

However, according to Itiel Dror, if you do two tasks simultaneously that don't require the same sort of brain processes and therefore don't compete for brain resources (walking and talking, for example) we can all do a certain measure of multitasking.

I would imagine (and this is just y own conjecture) that the reason women have the reputation for being able to multitask is rooted in the traditionally gender-divided roles.

A woman could quite easily cook a familiar dish for dinner and help her son with his homework. Or cook the dinner and talk on the phone. Obviously, these tasks don't compete for brain resources (however, I would imagine that following an unfamiliar and adventurous recipe and helping her son with his homework would not go well together).

So, in the days of the stay-at-home Mom, mothers (probably of necessity) acquired the ability to pair tasks up so that they could do more than one at a time. They probably didn't even realise that they were pairing up tasks that required different brain processes.

I suspect the sort of tasks that men of the same era traditionally carried out would be found to compete for brain resources, so lent themselves less to being carried out more than one at a time.

Now that roles are not divvied up based on gender any more and we have stay-at-home Dads and female corporate execs and motor mechanics, I would say that it might be time to knock that old chestnut on the head.

LauraLJ said...

I'm a woman (the last time I looked) and I definately can't multi-task. I automatically slow down without thinking when driving and talking to my husband in the passenger seat and I cannot type on a Webex chat or whiteboard and talk at the same time. I always thought I was a Woman from Mars rather than Venus. By the way, I can also read maps without turning it upside down (my husband has to do this ;o)

V Yonkers said...

Texting and talking on the cell phone (not hand held) is not really compromised because of multi tasking. Rather, it is using the same senses (sight) simultaneously. Any parent can tell you that it is impossible to do anything with a toddler around because the minute you take your eyes off them they are into something that they should not be (i.e. light socket, cleaner, toothpaste--yes my daughter downed half a tube of toothpaste in about a minute when I turned to put the towels away in the same room).

As Karyn points out, there are tasks that can be paired up because there does not have to be the same level of attention to both tasks. I content, in fact, that driving is a multi tasking activity. This is especially obvious to me as I begin to teach my son how to drive. The first lesson, he had to look at his feet whenever he would break, so I ended up being his eyes to make sure he did not go off the road. Eventually, the skill has come so he can accelerate, break, and keep the car on the road! Now we are working on turning the car which requires him to accelerate, break, look peripherally where he is turning, looking straight ahead for on coming traffic, and turning the wheel. I end up being his eyes for what is going on behind him and in front as he can't do all of these things at once.

I think part of the problem with the big "multi-task" push has to do with how we define multi-task and our recognition that something looked at as being a single task, is in fact a multi-task.

If I am writing a blog post, I can also keep track of the laundry, settle my children's disputes, monitor their health (i.e. as I write this my son just mentioned his ear hurt, which I am sure is swimmer's ear and I have directed him to put some alcohol in it) etc... Do I want the subway engineer to be texting or doing paperwork while driving the train? No, because there will be external factors that will come up that I want him aware of. Do I want the customer service representative to fill out her time sheet as she's working with me on the phone...why not?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai!

Tēnā koe e Karyn!

Sure there are lots of things I multi-task with - listening to the radio and doing the dishes to name but a pair. With the old cell and txting while driving? That's a bit different, especially when reading the txt and thinking about how to respond to it while driving and txting. The research (apparently) has shown similar problems arise when talking on the phone while driving.

I don't know much about women multi-tasking, but I love Ken Robinson's story about him mono-tasking in the kitchen, "Please! I'm trying to fry an egg in here?"

Kia ora e Laura!

You and me both, and the last time I looked I was still a man. I can't even work to music. Switch on the I-Pod and I drift with the music - forget about work! I don't know how others can do it. But as was pointed out by Karyn, there are some combinations - Like I can listen to music while I clean the sink-bench :-)

Tēnā koe Virginia!

I think the point here is that there are some things that can be done by multi-tasking. It's the effectiveness that's at stake. When I'm driving, I become a very ineffective driver very quickly if I'm discussing something with a passenger or my kids are arguing in the back seat. Many a time (and oft) I have rated my children for their distractions while I'm trying to drive - but always after I've parked the car at the roadside.

Nor can I can't write a post and have a chat on the phone at the same time - been there - tried that!

Catchya later

The upsycho said...

Like Laura, I can read a map without turning it around. In fact, I am the family navigator, so sucks to all those who say girls can't read maps.

And having gone through the son-learning-to-drive thing recently as well, I agree with Virginia that just driving is not one task, but many.

But... I have to turn the radio off if I get lost while driving (which happens often, because I can't read a map and drive at the same time). I can have the radio on, and listen to an interview or a documentary, or sing along to the songs when I know where I'm going. But as soon as I get lost... it has to go off so that I can concentrate on finding my way.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Karyn!

Interesting that you say you need to switch off the radio if you want to read a map when driving. Apparently recent research has indicated that perhaps sound and vision are 'wired' through similar neural code in the brain. This may offer some explanation for your own experiences.

Another less useful piece of research is that people who often multi-task are usually bad at it! I don't often multi-task (because I rarely find that I can when I attempt it) so I suppose the conclusion might be that I'm actually good at multi-tasking. Hmmm.

Obviously these findings are new and are probably still in need of proper interpretation. I often switch on my 'baloney detector' when I get into reading about all this sort of stuff. It helps me weigh up the 'science' in what's coming at me. It's not that I don't believe it - just that I don't permit myself to believe or disbelieve - the jury is out.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Sometimes I NEED to turn on the music to quiet my mind while driving. The other day, I was driving to pick my daughter up at a friend's house. This is only the 2nd or third time I have been to house which was by highway, about 1/2 away. My husband had last used my car, and he does not like to have the radio on. I started to think of all of the things I needed to do, the dissertation ideas I had, and suddenly, realized I had no idea where I was.

The radio HELPS me to focus when driving, whereas it distracts my husband. I think what needs to be done with any research on multi-tasking is to look at their definition of multi-tasking and their definition of "effective." Driving is such a complex process, but it is easier to "multi-task" (such as listening to the radio or your children) if you have established heuristics. But driving has other outside factors that require you to be aware because the usual heuristics don't always cover that. In my case, I need the music to keep my mind from wondering. I can't imagine there is any time in driving where you can just go on autopilot unless you are driving on a highway in Nevada (my sister and I decided you could fall asleep and wake up two hours later and never go off the road it is so straight and flat).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

This music thing seems to be a big issue. But, hey, Scott Flansburg does his amazing calculating and d'y'know what? He doesn't multi-task when he does his thing. Funny that, eh?

Catchya later