Can We Efficiently Multitask?

I began this inquiry a few days ago, after reading a passage on it in Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See Me (actually, multitasking is listed no less than 50 times in the book), but unfortunately I found myself side tracked and distracted several times (another pun, she mentioned distraction even more). I wish this statement was just a weak attempt at sarcastic irony (well, it’s not just that), but I think it’s the reality of many learners today. I began my reflection with the adult learner in mind, but thinking about it, don’t teenage learners face this challenge more than any of us? Gone are the days when writing a report meant a trip to the public library and for hours, bravely facing the risk of mortal wounds from paper cuts.

Nostalgic learners today may still venture out to the library, but cell phones, laptops, and tablets likely take the place of some of those books. In my own home, I used to find my youngest child “studying” with multiple windows open on her laptop, one of them being a music app blaring what I will loosely refer to as music, another on the latest social app, and then several others that were actually related more clearly to her studies. She would alternate flipping back and forth through the windows and then over to her cell phone for a few minutes and back. I tried, unconvincingly, to assure her that a brain was not wired to effectively or efficiently process data via that back and forth pattern (ok, it may have frequently come out as “please turn that crap down”…but I meant that other thing). Since I haphazardly, and naively raised my children to think for themselves this exchange frequently led to an intellectual debate that went something like this, “it does not…does too, does not”…and so on. As it turns out, the findings of researchers on the subject of multitasking echo that same tone.

Since you just selected the Read More button, I feel confident in predicting that, like myself, you also consider yourself a multitasker. Imagine my shock then after reading a recent article a few days ago. The headline proclaimed, “Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career, New Studies Suggest”. The author wasted no time in name-dropping. He indicated that Stanford University researchers found that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time”. I was immediately dumb struck by that sentence (arguably, proving his point, but I digress). What job that in anyway involves a computer, and I challenge you to count more than a couple, does this sentence not apply?  Luckily, despite my daily bombardment from “several streams of electronic information” I recalled Cathy Davidson’s tilt on the subject in her book Now You See Me.

Dr. Davidson portrays a very different narrative through a number of different examples. In fact, imagine my surprise when I realized that one of them directly contradicted a Stanford University research finding. Now what an amazing coincidence I thought. The Forbes article’s headline, printed in the waning months of 2014, trumpeted the word “new studies”, yet Dr. D’s copyright was 2011. Was it just amazing foresight? No, it turns out that if you actually follow the links in the article (which I’m sure all readers take the time to do…insert sarcastic drumbeat here) they lead to a 2009 Stanford study. Follow that up with a Google search for Forbes and multitasking to discover an average of one article per year, each with slightly different angle. This began to ease my fears a bit. Perhaps multitasking doesn’t hurt us (does too…does not). This seems like one of those rare occasions when academic science might better articulate a point than journalistic sensationalism (no really, it could). Dr. Davidson provided a prescription for that.

The esteemed authors at Forbes, and the Stanford researchers, believe that our brains are only wired, or preprogrammed, to focus on one thing at a time and that we cannot change that. The Forbes headline goes so far as to suggest that trying to do so may even hurt us. Dr. Davidson points to something called the Hebbian principle (126), which proves the opposite. Developed by Dr. Donald Hebb, this principle suggests that through repetition of certain patterns of behavior they can become more reflexive, and in time automatic. The brain systematically groups these patterns, making the action more efficient. One of the most basic and relatable examples she uses is that of driving a car. Upon walking out of the DMV on my 15th birthday, after passing the test for my learner’s permit, I confidently strutted toward the door with my dad in tow. With an all-knowing grin, which I usually picked up on, he tossed the car keys to me. I was just bright enough to pause for a momentary contemplation. Like a flash, it occurred to me that I hadn’t really had any training or time behind the wheel of an automobile. Nevertheless, I figured, what could go wrong? This is the same guy that taught me to ride a bike on a dirt road with a barbed-wire fence on one side and an overgrown ditch on the other. No problem, let’s do this thing.

Well, I quickly felt as overwhelmed as that 5 year old on the dirt road. Processing on-coming traffic, cross-traffic, signs, and traffic signals all while maintaining speed and direction was a lot for me to think about initially. Anxious to get it right, my mind quickly did a mental scan of the driver’s book as I approached my first yellow light, but there was no time for answers there. My youthful confidence was quickly awash with indecisiveness. This triggered a last second response in my brain that said I should brake fast. Unfortunately, that wiring had not yet developed enough to help me differentiate between which foot I should apply the brakes. I ended up simultaneously stepping down as hard as I could with both feet, one firmly on the brake and the other on the gas. In the spirit of the Hebbian principle my rewiring began that very moment. As an added bonus, if for only a brief second, that 15 year old managed to remove that grin from his dad’s face. Granted, he almost wet himself laughing once he regained his composure, but the experience rewired him as well. Upon my younger brother’s 15th birthday he drove him to an open parking lot then gave him the keys.

In the end, I’m not sure I totally agree with Dr. Davidson’s quick dismissal of the Stanford study simply because it used dated methods. I don’t know that this on it’s own invalidates their efforts. However, if you are concerned about the potential effects of multitasking I encourage you to read through her book, once you finish checking your email, and twitter account, and listen to that new music release on Pandora. Just as the sensationalist journalism will continue so too will the barrage of electronic stimulus in our daily lives. Her common sense examples combined with scientific principles will help you eliminate those articles as mere temporary distractions.


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