Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again!

I’ve been researching what neuroscience evidence we have that explains the risks of DWD (Driving While Distracted), such as mobile phone usage. Is multitasking really possible? Do some humans have this capacity? So far all the evidence that I’ve found says no – multitasking is a myth. Examples:

Stanford – Clifford Nass et al (press release); fire walled paper here:

But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”

Social scientists have long assumed that it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.

Is there a gift?

So Nass and his colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set out to learn what gives multitaskers their edge. What is their gift?

“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author and a researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

University of Michigan – Daniel Weissman et al:

(…) And it seems as if we’re focusing on all these tasks simultaneously, as if we’ve become true masters of doing 10 things at once.

But, brain researchers say, that’s not really the case.

Multitasking: A Human Delusion?

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said.

“You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.

“Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” he said.

“You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks,” Miller said. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.”

Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they’re trying to figure out the details of what’s going on.

Putting The Mind To The Test

At a lab at the University of Michigan, researchers are using an MRI scanner to photograph test subjects’ brains as they take on different tasks.

During a recent test, Daniel Weissman, the neuroscientist in charge of the experiment, explained that a man lying inside the scanner would be performing different tasks, depending on the color of two numbers he sees on a screen.

“If the two digits are one color — say, red — the subject decides which digit is numerically larger,” Weissman said. “On the other hand, if the digits are a different color — say green — then the subject decides which digit is actually printed in a larger font size.”

The tests can be tricky — which is the point. After an attempt, the technician told the test subject, “OK, do the same thing, except try to go faster this time.”

MRI studies like this one, Weissman said, have shown that when the man in the scanner sees green, his brain has to pause before responding — to round up all the information it has about the green task.

When the man sees red, his brain pauses again — to push aside information about the green task and replace it with information about the red task.

I think the practical question is political. How do we motivate politicians to legislate measures that will stop driving with mobiles? It’s not a technical issue. E.g., if Apple Stores can detect a person wishing to pickup an order by their mobile signal, an auto can detect that a mobile is switched on when the driver attempts to start or drive. Meanwhile, we have prosecution.

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