Why Multi-Tasking May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Man concentrating on a letterIf you speak and teach corporate seminars, as I do, then you know what it feels like to look out at a sea of Blackberries. And, in many companies, at open-lidded notebooks too.

At first, I took this as a personal insult. That turned out to be not very useful.

Nor was it useful to assume it was simply a comment on the low quality of my teaching and a challenge to improve. Not that I couldn’t—but I noticed it wasn’t just me who was being crack-berried, it was everyone.

Now I simply note at session outset that an inability to leave clients and co-workers to fend for themselves until the next break amounts to a neurotic mixture of insecurity and arrogance.

And then I let it go. Well, mostly. (And yes, I’m not without sin either when I’m in an audience.)

Little did I know that there was some truth behind my accusation of diminished mental health. The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck reports:

"Many cases of Alzheimer’s do start out as ‘senior moments,’" says P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of Biological Psychiatry at Duke University Medical School and co-author of "The Alzheimer’s Action Plan," a new book for people who are worried…

Names and dates that take time to retrieve "generally aren’t well-archived," says Dr. Doraiswamy. You may not have paid much attention to them in the first place — especially if you were multitasking. "Your brain has an inexhaustible amount of storage, but you can’t have too many programs running at the same time, or it’s hard to attend to them," says Gayatri Devi, a psychiatrist and neurologist who runs the New York Memory Center. That may explain the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other phenomenon that plagues some people.

Paying attention is critical to laying down memories, which scientists now think are distributed all around the brain.

The computer metaphor strikes me as appropriate. If you think of our brains as analogous to computer memory, there’s a trade-off between memory and processing speed. Multi-tasking is a choice to allocate more of our brainpower to processing—and hence less to the storage of memory. That choice inevitably lets some data slide by. And since we haven’t yet got the ability to add more memory chips, it’s a meaningful choice.

I recall recently reading (In the New Yorker? Ah, I’ve been multi-tasking too much.) A story about the old Hindu spiritual leaders who would memorize days of stories from the holy literature, to be told at large gatherings. With the advent of literacy and tape recordings, the ability to memorize such large amounts of data disappeared from society.

The same was true for rural folk music in the US, which Alan Lomax presciently understood in the 30s and 40s when he did those great field recordings for the Smithsonian. It was true when kids were allowed calculators in school and forgot how to do long division. And it’s true now when I recall my loved ones’ speed-dial numbers, but not the underlying phone numbers they represent.

The article goes on to say:

“The richer you can make the experience, the more memorable it is…It’s just as important to forget extraneous things and minimize mental clutter,” says Dr. Devi. You can’t dump those 1960s TV jingles from long-term memory, but you can free up your short-term memory by using calendars, lists and personal-digital assistants. "Put the burden on gadgets," says Dr. Doraiswamy.

Again, this strikes me as good commonsense. You are what you think about.

In The Monk and the Philosopher (thanks Pierre), a French philosopher and his son, a Buddhist monk, touch on this issue. The father casts doubt on the ability of the human mind to focus for long periods of time, as the monks claim to do in meditation.

The monk-son retorts that Western minds are simply universalizing their own disinclination to pay attention: that in fact, paying attention is simply a habit, which we can choose to cultivate—or not.

4 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Browser just crashed and took my comment with it, so here it is again, with added concision at no extra charge:

    1.  Matt Asay has a similarly-spirited piece at CNET today which you might enjoy: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13505_3-9962935-16.html

    (I can’t make your WYSIWYG link generator work today, sorry.)

    2. Re: memory and oral tradition — do any public school systems still require that students memorize and recite poetry?

    3. In his book "To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design," author Henry Petroski makes a strong case for why the replacement of slide rules with calculators and computers has made for lower quality engineering and an increase in engineering disasters.  (It is a great read, too, even for non-engineers.)

    4. Does the choice to play with the gadget in your hand vs  paying attention to the person in front of you reflect, in part, different levels of self-orientation? (cf http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters/354/)

    5. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some spectacularly successful people in different fields of endeavor.  One common trait: the ability to focus on, pay attention to, and truly listen to another person. (Also cf #4 above.)

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charles,

    I think there’s something in addition operating here: 

    Being raised in a “media age”, many folks have become addicted for hyped and immediate stimulation…resulting in a brain that is under-developed and one in which hyperactivity (moving from stimulus to stimulus…blackberry, to pager, to facebook, to TV, to twitter, to email, back to blackberry, etc., incessantly, impulsively and addictively…)… making focused attention for many somewhat impossible (even when they set their intention to attend and focus)…where their inability to reflect and think more deeply, or attend and focus,  is challenged and for some not something they can do in a sustained way. 

    For these folks, their brains need "change" almost every minute or so to sustain focus; concentration and attention are often very challenging and sometimes often well-nigh impossible. These folks are addicted (ask them to do without such devices for a week (much less an hour or so) and the honest ones will admit they can’t. They’re addicted. Their addiction makes them inattentive and less able to focus.

    Since they have conditioned themselves and been conditioned for more and more stimulation, their low brain areas require this consistent stimulation and their cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) is underutilized. They are one walking hyper “text messaging unit” as opposed to truly “thinking” individuals. 

    Another even more unconscious, perhaps,  side of this, is folks’ unconscious need to “belong” and the degree to which they feel like a “nobody” if they are not socially engaged in one of these online efforts (facebook, etc). This is also an addiction as many of these folks are not comfortable in their own skins, in their own silence – so they always need to be engaged (so sitting quietly and focusing is almost not an option), however superficially to maintain their addictive and often unconscious need to belong so need to "check in" incsssantly to see if anything’s new or changed so they don’t feel out of the (unconscious need to belong) loop.

    The bottom line is how many folks are engaged in such “activity” (doing for the sake of doing, to keep busy as they are uncomfortable in their own company and their addictive thirst for stimulus) and “action” (true and real purpose-driven work or action that has some higher purpose and deeper meaning). For these folks, it’s more often the former, and seldom the latter.  So, more "electronically antsy" moving around than sitting peacfully engaged and focused.

  3. Ken Allan
    Ken Allan says:

    Tēnā koe Charles

    There is much that’s recursively elaborate within the brain and how it functions. There is also much redundancy, for the brain can be regarded as a complexity system.

    It’s well known that memories are not fixed, indelible, factual pieces of data. They are mobile and subject to change. So much so that, revisiting specific memories by a repetitive process where unrelated associations are constantly brought into play can change perception and hence change the memory. It is difficult to say whether this is brought about by change in the recursive elaborations within memory itself, or a reprioritising of the memory fragments so that perception is then changed. But this is what has been observed.

    I posit that memory is comprised of many recursively similar fragments – that memory fades by the slow and inevitable changes that take place within the brain and hence to thse fragments – but can be kept ‘alive’ yet not necessarily with a high degree of fidelity, by constantly revisiting as in the telling of an event or even reliving it within the mind itself.

    It is now well known and documented that multitasking lowers concentration level as well as concentration span. “Paying attention” as you put it could mean attending to the event in hand with a singular mind. There is a minimal chance of variation in all the memory fragments when this happens. Otherwise . . .

    Why is a beautiful sunset in a relaxed and truly serene setting so memorable?
    Why is the emotional and poignant moment in first love so memorable?
    Why is the child’s first successful journey on a bicycle so memorable?

    Ka kite
    From Middle-earth

  4. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, are you familiar with Linda Stone, who coined  the terms "continuous partial attention" and "email apnea"?

    She has a good productivity article on retiring the infinite to do list with four tips on how to trade in multitasking for "flow" (à la Csikszentmihalyi):

    "1. Each evening or morning before you start your day, make a short list of your intentions (the result and feeling of something you want) for the day and by each, write the related to do’s for that day. Try to keep your list to 5 intentions. Consciously choose what you will do and what you will not do. Keep a different list of what you will review for inclusion on other days.

    2. List only what you really expect to do that day. As other things come to mind, write them on a separate list. By putting these items on a separate list, you are creating the space to be in the moment with each of your day’s priorities. Review that list as you plan for the next day and determine how they fit in to your plans. Give yourself some down time, enjoy your successes at the end of the day.

    3. Give yourself meaningful blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on each intention. Turn OFF technology each day during those blocks and focus on your intentions.

    4. At home, be clear about what technology you’ll use and where. Computer in the kitchen? Maybe not. A friend of mine just removed the computer from her kitchen and said she is now far less likely to stop to constantly check email or news. In the kitchen, she pays attention to her family and prepares food. Sometimes they do group family activities at the kitchen table. When she heads into her office to work on her computer, her children know not to disturb her while she works."

    . . .

    Great advice that  supports your thesis from yet another perspective.




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