The Myth of Multitasking - Multitasking Week

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Sorosh Tavakoli.

As you’re reading this article, immersed in the warm glow of your desktop, odds are this isn’t the only tab open on your browser. Maybe I’ve caught you in the middle of some online shoe shopping, or in the midst of streaming a new album. You’re possibly tied to a couple of quick and mindless scrolls through the social media universe too; dutiful status checks, glimpses of Instagram images, a few tweets, retweets, and likes. All the while you somehow muster enough attention to read this article.

Let’s face it, in our technologically saturated society every one of us has become an inevitable culprit of “multitasking.” It’s practically demanded of us just to keep up, and to manage our time in ways not before possible. But recent studies have demonstrated that spreading ourselves too thin can be detrimental to our cognitive abilities.

In 2009, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, accompanied by colleagues Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, sought to understand exactly what makes multitaskers function. How is it that some people seem naturally adept at cycling between multiple tasks simultaneously?

The study divided a group of 262 college students into those who identify themselves to be frequent media multitaskers and those who don’t. Next, the groups were assigned a series of experiments to complete, which included filtering irrelevant information, switching between separate tasks, and utilizing memory functions. The expectations were that multitaskers would have a natural edge in executing these tasks.

The results, however, illustrated quite the contrary to be true.

Ophir was a former friend and colleague to Nass, who passed away in November. Both men spent over two years conducting their research for a study they initially believed would prove conclusive after only one test. Ophir delves through the extensive experience to share some of his insights with BTR.

“Historically if you look at it, humans aren’t really meant to parallel process information,” Ophir explains. “So we wanted to see how multitaskers process information differently: how do they do it?”

The researchers found it challenging to establish a believable environment that could effectively mimic the environmental factors that subjects would naturally face in their day-to-day experiences managing media.

“It’s very difficult to create realistic multitasking scenarios in the lab,” Ophir tells BTR, “primarily because it can take so many different forms. Rather than craft an artificial set up we wanted to test those people on some very standard psychological ground. Instead of comparing a football player to a long distance jumper and trying to find out who is better, it’s more like having them both run the 100-yard dash and see who’s faster.”

During one of the experiments both groups were subjected to a series of different rectangular configurations. Sets of two red rectangles were shown either alone or surrounded by two, four, or six blue rectangles. The participants had to determine whether the position of red rectangles changed between each flashing frame.

The non-multitaskers had little difficulty ignoring the blue rectangles – but it wasn’t such a cakewalk for the multitaskers.

“We found heavy media multitaskers filter less,” says Ophir. “They take in much more information from the environment. But the flip side is that they have a hard time ignoring things. In the study even when we told them to ignore subjects, revealing them to be irrelevant, they still paid attention anyways.”

Because they couldn’t ignore potential distractions, Ophir and his colleagues posited that the multitaskers might be better at remembering and organizing information. Test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers simultaneously and were told what to focus on. Yet the researchers were once again confounded with the results. The multitaskers drastically underperformed in the control group. They did worse and worse as the experiment continued; after being subjected to so many letters and numbers they struggled to keep track of them all.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said Nass, whose findings were published in the August 24th edition of the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”

It’s not entirely conclusive yet whether these excessive media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate effectively or whether their focus has been withered by prolonged exposure to overwhelming stimuli.

The results of another interesting study were published earlier this week, however, that could stake a potential genetic claim in the matter. A brain connectivity experiment from Penn Medicine published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences discovered fundamental differences in the neural framework of men and women; differences that may very well point to women as possessing a superior potential to “multitask” – that is, if there truly is such a thing.

Ragini Verma, PhD, accompanied by colleagues Raquel and Ruben Gur, found that men are better suited to learning and performing a single task. Women possess superior memory and social cognition skills, which makes them better qualified to multitask and conceive solutions that work for a group. This is due to how each gender forges neurological pathways between different hemispheres of the brain.

“If indeed ‘multi-tasking’ is an illusion and what really happens is rapid shifting of focused attention, this could relate to our finding because faster integration of information from both hemispheres should facilitate shifting focus from one activity to another,” Ruben Gur shares with BTR. “For example, if going over your child’s homework requires more left hemisphere resources while keeping track of a toddler or the growth charts of your company’s sales are more right hemispheric, then women would have an advantage in better coordinating attentional shifts.”

“Women are better at integration of information,” says Gur. “And this can facilitate multitasking. There’s simply more cross-hemisphere talk happening.”

Regardless of who might be better, the question still remains to be answered: are there any real merits to those who integrate entire sensory environments at the cost of cognitive control?

“Yes, traditionally humans are not good at multitasking,” Ophir tells BTR. “But the fact that we can’t do it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. They’re not spending more or less attention, just allocating it differently, because that’s what their environment is calling on them to do.”

According to Ophir, certain situations might actually benefit those who spread their attention across a wide breadth of focus.

“If you’re trying to write a paper and things keep distracting you, well that can be a bad thing,” he says. “But if you’re driving your car and talking on the phone, and you’re really focused on that conversation, then suddenly someone slams on the brakes in front of you – now that’s no longer really a distraction. That’s really something you should notice. So it’s really sort of a different optimization for the multitaskers.”

For those seeking to remedy this cognitive scatterbrain, there are traditional methods available. Meditation is a proven key to reducing stress while simultaneously increasing the mind’s strength and durability of focus. In fact, University of Washington Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock discovered meditation training can help grow attention spans and improve memory capabilities, conclusions they published in a collaborative study entitled The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High Stress Information Environment.

While seemingly anyone could benefit from this age-old confluence of self-reflection and focus, our current high stress information environment will only continue to develop and subsequently diminish the time and resources necessary to practice such cognitive control exercises.

“I think that meditation might be a very good idea – that is if you want to combat it,” says Ophir. “Some people might prefer distractions at the cost of being more in tune with everything around them. While we’re trying to fight these tendencies, we might be in a world that’s moving more towards that [multitasking] reality, and the ability could prove to be an asset. So combating it is not necessarily an imperative.”

It’s quite likely that the technological powers-to-be will render the landscape into one where these difficult decisions are ultimately made for us. Ophir, who is a user-experience designer at Yahoo, speculates as to what this could look like for future multitaskers.

“The whole point is you want to help the user gain better control,” he tells BTR, “and there’s room for that. Different media aggressively court the user’s attention: commercials, ringtones – they’re designed to get your attention all at once. There’s the potential to explore meta interfaces, which would give you tools to control that and help you figure out what is most important. You can already see it at work, like the ‘do not disturb’ mode on iPhones. These interfaces are developing to help users gain control of information environments.”

This won’t come without a cost, one that might come across to some as a warning ripped straight from the cautionary annals of science-fiction. This is the sacrifice of personal choice, concludes Ophir.

“The interfaces will make that decision for us when we’re not in a position to make it ourselves.”