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You think you can multitask? Think again!



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In 2009 I became aware of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the effectiveness of multitasking by Professor Clifford Nass, Department of Communication at Stanford. Nass was one of the first academics to study and warn of the dangers of multitasking and decline of social interaction. He and his colleagues at Stanford devised three tests to study the effects of multitasking—an increasingly prevalent activity of the young. They compared chronically heavy multitaskers to those who were light multitaskers. All of their assumptions about the skills of multitaskers were proved wrong. Multitaskers failed in the three control tests. 1—They were constantly distracted by irrelevant stimuli and unable to weed out what was of no consequence. 2—Their memories were not as good because they saw everything and couldn’t sort out important information in their brains. 3—They couldn’t switch from one task to another without thinking about all the tasks before them and couldn’t keep things separate in their minds. In all three tests the light multitaskers outperformed the heavy multitaskers. Anthony Wagner, a Nass colleague, summed up the findings:

When they’re [heavy multitaskers] 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.

In an interview with Frontline, December 1, 2009, Nass said that multitasking was increasing in spite of the studies that proved its inefficiencies. He mentioned the new apps that continually roll out every day for smartphones, companies that insisted employees answer emails within 15 minutes, changes to Facebook that users have to adjust to, and teachers trying desperately to control multitasking in the classroom. “It seems like mostly a losing battle.”

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The studies by Nass and his colleagues are confirmed by Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill, in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Extracts were published in The Guardian, January 18, 2015. Levitin also found that multitasking is unhealthy for our brain and makes us less efficient. Levitin compares smartphones to Swiss army knives—we are now doing the jobs of 10 different people (what ever happened to travel agents?). He quotes Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention,

[O]ur brains are “not wired to multitask well . . When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” . . .

Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient. . . . Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new—the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. . . . [T]he very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.

On November 2, 2013, Clifford Nass died at 55 of a heart attack. At the time of his death he was working on the erosion of social and emotional development by the increasing use of media and social media. In its obituary of Nass, The New York Times quoted a statement from a talk he gave at Stanford the year he died:

The moral of this story here is really clear, we’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Managing Editor 

Note: Here is the description for Samsung’s Galaxy Note4 from its website:

Free Flowing and Natural multitasking. Intuitive, for more convenience. Multi-window. Gain flexibility by managing multiple applications at once on a single screen using simple gestures.

Why do they want us to multitask? To dumb us down is the only logical answer.

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Credit: Anthony Wagner quote from Stanford News, August 24, 2009.

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