Jenna Wortham discovers that throwing herself into the fastest currents of a liquid web is where she feels most stable and centered. Contrary to conventional wisdom, moving your distractable self into a torrent of distractions may be the background white noise we have more than learned to live with: now, it nurtures us.
When Internet Distractions Make Us More Efficient - Jenna Wortham via NYTimes.com
[…] sometimes I’ve found that losing myself in the Web can be invigorating. Instead of needing to turn off the noise of the Web, I often use it to calm my nerves so I can finish my work.
It seems that instead of fracturing my focus and splintering my attention span, digital distractions have become a part of my work flow, part of the process, along with organizing notes and creating an outline for each article I write. Perhaps it’s possible to master the demands on my attention by figuring out a way to juggle the multitude of apps and services that beg to be looked at, clicked on and answered.
If my brain is learning how to cope with distractions, is it possible that others are, too?
Of course, the consensus among scientists and researchers is that trying to juggle many tasks fractures our thinking and degrades the quality of each action. But understanding the plasticity of the brain, or its ability to adapt and reorganize its pathways, is still in its early stages.
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the impact of interruption on performance and memory, says it’s possible that our brains are adapting to handle the many inputs of digital stimulation. He and his research team are using interactive video games to observe how the brain adapts to multiple tasks that increase in difficulty over time.
“We can train ourselves to get better,” he said. “We’re studying the plasticity of the brain so we can understand how abilities can improve.”
It may be that the brain — or some brains — can handle certain levels of multitasking and not others, he said. Surfing the Web and talking on the phone may not place the same demand on available cognitive resources as, say, cruising down the highway and sending a text message. It’s an area of research that scientists and psychologists are just starting to explore, he said.
“We’re pushing the brain to master switching between tasks,” he said. “But if abilities can actually improve, the question is, by how much?”
Wortham and Gazzaley don’t explictly mention the work of Watson and Strayer on supertaskers — people who really suffer no degradation of performance when doing two difficults tasks at the same time. It is not some statistic fluke, either.
But the naysayers will continue prattling about the impossibility of multitasking, that it is dehumanizing, and degrades our thinking, and even makes us less connected to other people. This is ideologically motivated, just like the scare tactics about comic books leading to crime, or video games inspiring violence, or rock-and-roll making teenagers promiscuous.
Most important is the fact that the human mind is plastic: we can learn new skills, and that changes our thinking. Trained musicians, for example, use more parts of the brain than non-musicians when listening to music.
And we know that mastery is different from learning. It takes a long time before our first efforts at playing the piano or studying karate are rewarded. It might be that Jenna Wortham has been living in the stream long enough that she has developed new cognitive skills that both help her do her work and make her feel more centered, at the same time.