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Article Archive >> Community

Reflections: Are you able to multitask?

Reflections
Are you able to multitask?
By William L. Bulla

Recently, I was discussing "multitasking" with a group of friends, when one lady said "I do it all the time." When asked what tasks this included, she responded with, "I bake a cake, do laundry and vacuum the house at the same time." When asked how she accomplished all these tasks simultaneously, she explained, "First I mix the cake dough and put it in the oven. I then get the laundry in the washing machine and while that is washing, I run the vacuum around the house."
Yes, the cake is baking in the oven, the laundry is being washed, and the house is being vacuumed all at the same time, BUT, this is not multitasking as the term is meant. Had she been able to mix the cake dough, load the washing machine and run the vacuum at the same time, she would have been multitasking.
Contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. An example of this inattention to detail due to multitasking is apparent when people talk on cell phones while driving. Talking and driving are mutually exclusive because focusing on both the conversation and the road uses the same part of the brain. As a result, people generally become more concerned with their phone conversations and do not concentrate on their immediate surroundings. That's one of the reasons that the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can't effectively attend to two things at once - even the superficially automatic ones.
A 2006 study published in the Human Factors journal showed that drivers talking on cell phones were more involved in rear-end collisions and sped up slower than drivers intoxicated over the .08% legal limit. When talking, people must withdraw their attention from the road in order to formulate responses. Because the brain cannot focus on two sources of input at one time, driving and listening or talking, constantly changing input provided by cell phones distracts the brain and increases the likelihood of accidents.
The term "multitasking" originated in the computer engineering industry. It was used to refer to the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously.
We think of human multitasking as the ability of an individual handling more than one task at the same time. Since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have started experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, errors go way up and it takes more time to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.
When people try to drive in heavy traffic and talk, researchers claim, brain activity does not double, it decreases. People performing two demanding tasks simultaneously do neither one as well as if they do each one alone. Multitasking decreases your memory ability. Each task that you're engaged in drains part of your mental energy. This drainage is why multitasking breeds absentmindedness. Your complete mind isn't present when you shift from one task to another and back again. You could say your mind is absent. The plain truth is that you don't have unlimited ability to pay attention to several things at once.
As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it's still a myth - and they have the data to prove it. Humans, they say, don't do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.
"Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Miller said. "You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly."
Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain. "Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time," he said. "You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks," Miller said. "They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them."
Sadly, multitasking does not exist, at least not as we think about it. We instead switch tasks. Our brain chooses which information to process. In today's information-rich society, people frequently attempt to perform many tasks at once. This often requires them to juggle their limited resources in order to accomplish each of these tasks successfully. This juggling is not always easy, and in many cases can lead to greater inefficiency in performing each individual task.

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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