Sunday, October 24, 2010

Multitasking and Your Brain

I am always busy.  It's just how I choose to live most of the time.  Barring this past summer, when I avoided having a job to recover from academic burnout, I have at least five things going on all the time-- work, school, activities, volunteering, personal projects, socializing, you name it.  Even when I'm relaxing, I know there's a long list of things that I should be doing.  This means I have become very, very good at multi-tasking.

Recently, however, I've been trying to do that less.  Not because I have fewer things to do, but because I read a fantastic book that, among other things, explained exactly how your brain processes things when you multitask and why it might not be good when you're trying to learn or remember something.  The book, The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman, goes through all the ways in which e-mail has changed our lives, from forming our to-do lists for us, swamping us with physically impossible amounts of information to digest, and forcing us to bring our work home with us.  (At one point he cites an interview with Madonna where the pop star admitted that both she and then-husband Guy Ritchie slept with their Blackberries under their pillows.)

The section that struck me the most, however, is about halfway through the book, when Freeman starts to get into the nitty-gritty details of how constantly being connected affects your brain.  Citing a UCLA research experiment, Freeman writes, "A group of twentysomethings were asked to sort a deck of cards-- once in silence, a second time while listening to randomly selected sounds in search of specific tones. 'The subjects' brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus-- which stores and recalls information-- to the striatum,' [author Walter] Kirn explained, 'which takes care of rote, repetitive activities.  Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction-- but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they'd been sorting once the experiment was over.'"

Now I have not looked up the original study on this to see how it was conducted and assess its validity, but even without doing so, the information Freeman presents is interesting.  First, the experiment involved young "twentysomethings", the first group that has grown up in a wired environment and therefore is often seen as best at multitasking.  So if this group is not able to adjust how their brain handles multiple tasks at a time, I would say the odds of any other age group being able to do so is slim.

Second, the study reminded me of a historical trend seen in media studies, where the introduction of any new technology has provoked a backlash suggesting that it will make the next generation of users lazy, stupid or dependent.  UVA student Lauren Bicknell created a fantastic comic detailing this evolution, which can be found here at Movable Type, the university's undergraduate media studies journal.

Third, this experiment suggested to me that, perhaps, we aren't made to do a hundred different things at once.  When I told my older brother about this section of the book, his response was, "Huh.  So that's where those four years of college education went."  Funny but possibly true-- like me, my brother is a notorious multitasker, at least if those texts I got from him when he was doing crossword puzzles in class are any indication.  Even if the study turns out to be overestimating the effects of multitasking, maybe I should start separating out my tasks a little bit better.  After all, some of the stuff I have to read for grad school is dense enough that I'd rather it stay in the hippocampus after the first try, rather than realizing I don't remember it at all and having to struggle through again!

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