Leave the multitasking to your computer…

March 26, 2007 at 9:55 am | Posted in News | Leave a comment

It seems the human brain has been conclusively shown to have a bottleneck that causes it to slow down when processing multiple tasks at once. I have often wondered about this myself, as I try to embrace my fully digital life.  Last week I received a text message on my phone while I was walking through the grocery store, and nearly knocked over a cardboard display of Oreo cookies as I tried to send a reply and walk at the same time. I managed to stop myself just in time, and caught the display before it fell over; but it occurs to me that this was a benign incident involving some cookies at less than 3 miles per hour. What kind of response times will I have while I’m trying to answer the phone at 70 MPH on the freeway? Or, to examine it from another angle, what is the effect on an important email, or a big project, if I am interrupted by another gadget? Could these distractions have a long-term effect on my career?

Today’s CNet article includes several researchers who would say yes. Trying to do too many things at once hampers the brain’s performance.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Another researcher concurs that while the brain is an organic computational powerhouse, scientists have been examining its limits:  “A core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said Rene Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.  Marois goes on to describe a scenario in which response is consistently delayed by a full second each time a person is asked to pay attention to two different tasks at the same time.

A full second at the grocery store was enough to save the Oreos from my errant elbow at less than 3 MPH. A full second at 70 MPH is a whole different story.

So, I think I have decided that from now on, my phone is going to be turned off during my daily commute. I’m sure my family and coworkers will understand that I am less likely to run myself into a pylon if I wait to speak with them until I am safely parked. I have also written this blog entry without once checking my email, and without receiving any messages or phone calls, so you can rest assured that I gave it my full attention, and that it didn’t take me an extra 20 or 30 seconds to write!

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