In a full frontal attack on multitasking and the tools that seem to seduce us into it, Matt Richtel makes the case for the evils of being wired by chronicling the day-to-day media addiction of a California entrepreneur and his family. Kord Campbell misses an email from someone who wants to buy his company, his son is getting C’s, and mom gets pissed when Kord reacts to stress by playing video games interminably.
Richtel uses this modern dysfunctional family to advance the conventional interpretation of recent psychological tests and conjectues about human cognition in the wired age:
Matt Richtel, Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.
And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.
Ok, Richtel is a reporter, not a scientist, so it’s a natural thing for him to start with the conclusions first. But what is the science here?
Just some background, though, to level the playing field.
The human mind is plastic — This is unsurprising, but commonly overlooked. We all can learn new skills, or repurpose existing cognitive centers in our brains when exposed to new situations. That’s how we learn to speak a foreign language, to juggle, or to play the guitar.
Mastery is distinct from learning — The first few weeks when you are trying to learn to play the drums can be humbling, and lead to a lot of bad music. The rule of thumb called the ‘10,000 hour rule’ — made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers — suggests that for many sorts of complex behaviors, like getting a black belt, ten years of very regular practice is a baseline. And while the white belt may be learning valuable skills, he may be no better in a bar room brawl than an average person, and perhaps worse, since her new training may actually slow her responses as she responds intellectually to the situation: her karate is not second nature, yet.
So, the assumption of much of the popular discourse about multitasking is that the cognitive adaptation that happens when we are grappling with wired world is, at base, bad. The reality is that we are always learning, always adapting. Underlying this sense that multitasking is bad is the industrial ideal of personal productivity: we are supposed to be heads down, doing purposeful work as much as possible, and not being distracted by other things that are not relevant to the task at hand. Anything that distracts us from that is an annoyance.
However, the fact is that people need to balance task-oriented work — like writing this post — with the thinking and learning that informs the work and my ability to perform it — like reading the scientific studies cited in Richtel’s article, and thinking about what it means. Or answering the phone while I am writing the post, because I have been trying to close the loop with someone for several days, and this is him calling.
The world is too rich and varied to imagine that there is a path through it where we can simplify our activities to a series of programmed single-tasking activities. So clearly there is a balance. And I propose the following maxim: each person can multitask successfully to some degree, and our ability to multitask is a combination of innate and learned behaviors.
Much of the evidence that Richtel cites — when stripped of the moralistic preaching about media consumption rotting our minds — the usual war on flow stuff — accords with my maxim.
As Richtel cites:
Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.
[… much of the technical discussion in the article is spread all over]
At the University of Rochester, researchers found that players of some fast-paced video games can track the movement of a third more objects on a screen than nonplayers. They say the games can improve reaction and the ability to pick out details amid clutter.
“In a sense, those games have a very strong both rehabilitative and educational power,” said the lead researcher, Daphne Bavelier, who is working with others in the field to channel these changes into real-world benefits like safer driving.
What leads these better players to be better? Playing more games? Playing more games against better players? Better teaching from friends? Better genes?
Other research shows computer use has neurological advantages. In imaging studies, Dr. Small observed that Internet users showed greater brain activity than nonusers, suggesting they were growing their neural circuitry.
Many studies show that online activity — like reading — involves more of the brain than reading a book, for example. It seems we are thinking more critically while online, despite all the opportunities for distraction.
And Richtel only touches on one topic for a paragraph, and does not dig into the actual research involved. It seems that at least some people can in fact drive a car and talk on the phone at the same time: Supertaskers.
Preliminary research shows some people can more easily juggle multiple information streams. These “supertaskers” represent less than 3 percent of the population, according to scientists at the University of Utah.
That’s it? No mention of who these people are, or what sort of multitasking is involved? No suppositions?
Nope. Richtel wants to get back to his agenda, which is making the case against multitasking.
So I dug up the research which was conducted by Jason M. Watson and David L. Strayer at the University of Utah (Supertaskers: Profiles In Extraordinary Multitasking Ability), instead of just reading other reporters slander the authors. Watson and Strayer tested 200 subjects in a controlled fashion, and determined that 2.5% of the group could in fact drive in a difficult car simulation while conversing on the phone without significant loss of ability of the individual tasks. The ‘conversing on the phone’ wasn’t just talking about TV: it was a complex set of behaviors called OSPAN tasks, like remembered lists of items while performing mathematical calculations.
The authors state, unequivocally:
Supertaskers are not a statistical fluke. The single-task performance of supertaskers was in the top quartile, so the superior performance in dual-task conditions cannot be attributed to regression to the mean. However, it is important to note that being a supertasker is more than just being good at the individual tasks. While supertaskers performed well in single-task conditions, they excelled at multi-tasking.
This means that there are some of us who can drive and talk on the phone safely. And it seems like their superpower is multitasking itself, not just the ability to do these two specific things together.
Obviously, much more research is needed to determine what goes into this. I am going to suggest a few ideas though.
Being good at multitasking draws on more than one cognitive center — I doubt they will find a single gene or region of the brain responsible for multitasking. Like most complex cognitive function, it will involve some extremely diffused network of interaction in our mind. What we have learned about the minds of musicians and zen monks will be related, in some direct way.
No matter who you are, you can get better at multitasking — This will turn out to be like other human activities that involve mastery: it will take a long time, and it is better to have a teacher who is a master. Thinking hard about moving your hands fast — like the barroom challenge of tying to catch a dollar bill between your outstretched fingers — doesn’t work. The only thing that makes your hands move faster is practice: ten years of practice.
The fear mongers will tell us that the web, our wired devices, and remaining connected are bad for us. It will break down the nuclear family, lead us away from the church, and channel our motivations in strange and unsavory ways. They will say it’s like drugs, gambling, and overeating, that it’s destructive and immoral.
But the reality is that we are undergoing a huge societal change, one that is as fundamental as the printing press or harnessing fire. Yes, human cognition will change, just as becoming literate changed us. Yes, our sense of self and our relationships to others will change, just as it did in the Renaissance. Because we are moving into a multiphrenic world — where the self is becoming a network ‘of multiple socially constructed roles shaping and adapting to diverse contexts’ — it is no surprise that we are adapting by becoming multitaskers.
The presence of supertaskers does not mean that some are inherently capable of multitasking and others are not. Like all human cognition, this is going to be a bell-curve of capability. The test that Watson and Strayer devised only pulled out the supertaskers: the one with zero cognitive costs from multitasking. There are others in the text who had a slight cost, and others with higher costs.
Who among us are the most capable multitaskers, and in a position to teach the others? It may not be the case that the specific subjects in Watson and Strayer’s study are the best to teach others how to multitask, but it’s likely that some supertaskers out there are also good teachers.
Expect this to be a hot trend: parents sending their children off to supertasking classes after school, to get a jump on the new century.