Is Multi-Tasking Bad for The Brain

Used to be, if you wanted to indicate somebody was really, really stupid, you could say, “He can’t chew gum and talk at the same time.” Now, maybe not. If chewing gum and talking at the same time is an example of multi-tasking, studies show that mono-tasking might be better.

I am not sure what multi-tasking is though I guess I do it more than I used to. It would seem to mean listening to music while answering emails and interrupting the email to IM.

The authors of a Stanford Study say however that the brain really can do only one thing well at a time. That would seem to be a physiological fact.

So they ran some experiments.

Sure enough, the multi-taskers (I guess these were self-identified as such) performed considerably worse at some very simple tasks than did mono-taskers.

One of the authors of the study said of multi-taskers, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy….Everything distracts them.”

And another says, “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal…That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

But there’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem here. The researchers were not able to determine if multi-tasking clogs up the brain or if people who can’t concentrate anyway are drawn to multi-tasking.

I was visiting the class of another teacher. I was sitting with the students, and the student right next to me very surreptitiously checked his text messages at least five times during the hour I was there. I wonder if he heard what the teacher was saying. And the problem here wasn’t just the time paying attention to another stream of information; clearly the student anticipated getting text messages, and how much did that constant sense of anticipation run counter to his ability to concentrate. I know when I am anticipating something, I am not as present as I might otherwise be.

When I brought up this issue with my students, one said, were it not for multi-tasking she would not be able to stay awake during the lectures. They were so boring. But another said, it was amazing how much time one could pass on the web, and text messaging, and end up doing nothing. 

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