KEEPING THE FAITH: Multitasking madness

ronnie

Ronnie McBrayer

Published: Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 12:25 PM.

Beware of the multitasker. He or she isn’t being honest, for anyone who claims the ability to talk on the phone, surf the web, cook dinner, send a text message, balance the checkbook, and fly a crop duster all at the same time is terribly misguided. He or she might even be suffering from madness.

Neuroscientist and MIT professor Earl Miller says, “People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves.” What we humans can do, according to Miller, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

So when we quickly switch from task to task, we think we are simultaneously paying careful and skillful attention to everything around us, but this is a trick of the brain. We are actually hopscotching rapidly between activities.

As a test, try to write an in-depth email and have a detailed conversation on the phone at the same time. Or try to study for an algebra test while playing an Xbox game. It’s almost impossible to mix any of these together. The tasks will compete one against the other until the conflicting impulses produce a sort of numb paralysis within the struggling brain.

Some researchers have even suggested that if one attempted to work while stoned, he or she would be more efficient than when attempting to focus on too many things at once. And while I wouldn’t suggest keeping a dime bag in your office cubicle, the science makes a compelling case for being a “monotasker” rather than a multitasker.

The stupefying effect of multitasking may have been first observed in felines, not humans. Many years ago it was observed that cats could not focus on more than one target at a time. But scientists did not make this breakthrough. Lion tamers did.

Thankfully, the lion taming business has fallen on hard times in recent years. After all, such magnificent creatures were never meant to be caged. But some of us still remember the sensational lion tamers of the great circuses. Men like Clyde Beatty and Gunther Gebel-Williams would strut into the steel cage with little more than a costume, a cracking whip in one hand, and a chair in the other.



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