By Allan Goldstein
Originally published July 2011 revised April 2015
I recently overheard a proclamation, which has become somewhat of a mantra, recited by today’s college students. A student proudly making the following declaration regarding her ability to pay attention to multiple digital screens at once said, “Our brains are evolving to multitask!” That simple yet profound statement left me wondering if this could really be true? How in one or two computerized generations of human beings could our brains evolve so dramatically? Is there such a thing as multitasking, and how is our performance affected when we are concurrently attending to computers, smart phones, iPads, and our daily chores? Recent research in neuroscience has shown that our brains are capable of forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, but this student’s assertion seems to be pointing towards a rapid leap in evolution that goes well beyond that. Through my work in the field of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), I have come to believe that what we commonly refer to as multitasking does not exist and that the level of our ability to perform tasks suffers as we shift our attention from one task to another. In fact, the empirical data from studies in the field of neuroscience is proving that there is no such thing as multitasking!
The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines multitasking as “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer” and “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time.” These two definitions divide multitasking into two distinct categories. The first definition refers to performing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as driving while talking on the phone or listening to the radio while at the same time trying to remember directions. The second definition is pointing towards moving from one task to another, such as text messaging, followed by shifting to doing homework on a computer, and shifting again to grab a hurried bite from a late dinner—over and over, again and again. Now consider that all of us, especially college students given their current digital, computer, screen-oriented lifestyles, are doing more and more of this all the time. If this is true, and I believe it is, we can see why it is good for our psyches to think we are evolving to do it.
So what exactly is the data derived from recent research in the field of multitasking showing? In the PBS Frontline presentation Digital_Nation, by Douglas Rushkoff and Rachel Dretzin, Dr. Clifford Nass is interviewed about his studies at Stanford University on the performance levels of extreme multitaskers: “These are kids who are doing 5, 6, or more things at once all the time.” Contrary to the fact that most multitaskers think they are extremely good at it, the results of Nass’s first-of-its-kind studies are troubling: “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking! They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests that they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be we’re creating people who may not be able to think well and clearly.”
Taking a step back from the profound statement “our brains are evolving to multitask,” let’s look at the question, Are students developing new skills and competence that facilitates multitasking? In “What Else Do College Students ‘Do’ While Studying? An Investigation of Multitasking” by Charles Calderwood, Philip L. Ackerman, and Erin Marie Conklin, findings show a correlation among college students between mutitasking and study skills: “Higher homework task motivation and self-efficacy for concentrating on homework were associated with less frequent and shorter duration multitasking behaviors, while higher negative affect was linked to greater multitasking duration during the study session”. In my experience, there is a fundamental common sense to all this. If you focus all your attention on one task at a time, it seems logical that the results would be better than if your attention is divided or distracted by other tasks. Our children may argue they are evolving to move beyond this, yet the data support what our mothers and generations before us always knew as they gave advice such as, “Finish what you are doing!”
In our culture, there is certainly a perception that people can successfully multitask and a belief that the more we do it the more efficient at it we become. After all, most of us would say we are multitasking many times during the day. So what are the motivations behind all our multitasking? In her blog article “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention,” Linda Stone makes a distinction between simple multitasking and what cognitive scientists refer to as “complex multitasking” to explain her theory of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). In simple multitasking, each task is given the same priority. One task may even be routine, like stirring pasta while talking to our spouse. Stone claims the driving force in simple multitasking is to be more productive. In complex multitasking, the motivation is not to miss anything by maintaining a field of CPA. As Stone explains, “In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition.” One of these cognitive tasks may also seem more important than another, requiring our brains to be focused on it while remaining alert to the several other less important cognitive tasks requiring our attention. Stone continues, “When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.”
Stone’s theory of CPA is supported in the article “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers” by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. The abstract of their study states the following surprising findings: “that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” It is important to note Stone’s CPA is not multitasking; rather she is referring to the kind of attention we hold while we are complex multitasking. Maintaining our attention in this state of hyper-vigilance keeps our fight or flight response activated. According to Stone, some people will feel alive, on top of things, and connected. She concedes this can serve us well at times. However, Stone claims the shadow side of being on continuous, continuous partial attention (CCPA) is a constant activation of the fight or flight response. The complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress-related diseases. This holds true with my own experiences hearing about and seeing the conditions that create stress in the lives of participants in MBSR programs.
Indeed, neuroscientists are discovering that different parts of the brain are switching on and off, resulting in the serial processing that Stone references. This switching happens so fast that it appears we are performing multiple tasks simultaneously. We can conclude that, contrary to the first definition of multitasking, “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer” (Merriam-Webster ), that our brains do not process tasks concurrently. Regarding the second definition of multitasking, “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time” (Merriam-Webster ), we see we are not really performing tasks at the same time, but instead switching back and forth between them with some of us in an unfulfilled state of continuous partial attention.
In an interview for The Atlantic titled “Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation,” Joe Pinsker quotes David Gelles, the author of Mindful Work: “Multitasking is a myth. I think we rarely, if ever, can actually do two things at the same time. I think what we’re doing is very rapid task-switching, which leads to inherent inefficiencies.” Many naysayers may try to claim this is simply a semantic argument, and to some degree, I would agree. Words are divisive by nature and often fall short in truly representing what they are meant to describe. Perhaps it is time to throw out the word “multitasking,” as the definitions no longer fit, and invent words that better represent our current scientific understanding of the way our brains function. How about “serialtasking” or “taskswitching”?
If we identify that our lives have sped up to a point that may be causing us physical harm and if we have a desire to do something about it, there are several antidotes to our cultural addiction of the illusion of multitasking. This will require a change that most people may be resistant to make. In the article “Mastering Multitasking,” Urs Gasser and John Palfrey suggest, “We have to embrace and master it, while providing limits from time to time to create contemplative space for young people.” We can focus more on individual tasks by bringing a strong mindful awareness to our actions while performing them. By taking breaks and time outs, we can shift our attention back to our senses. In one sense, I’m hopeful as I see a cultural shift, perhaps as a backlash to all the stimulation, to embrace mindfulness. Alternatively letting go of even one aspect of multitasking, like text messaging, can be painful for some people, let alone shutting down and going offline.
The empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that there is no such thing as multitasking. Multitasking is a misnomer. The word points to something that at best can be looked at as individual tasks being performed through a very rapid switching back and forth in the way our brains function or through performing tasks with continuous partial attention. Research, particularly in the field of neuroscience, is compiling data that show multitasking can negatively affect performance and lead to increased levels of stress. We are all part of one big current cultural experiment where we are the scientists, the laboratory, and the results, and it is not a trivial matter. The quality of our lives and our health may depend on our ability to truly understand and wisely manage the effects of our perceptions, beliefs, and actions surrounding our illusion of multitasking.
Calderwood, Charles, Philip L. Ackerman, and Erin Marie Conklin. “What Else Do College Students ‘Do’ While Studying? An Investigation of Multitasking” Computers and Education 75 (2014): 19-29. psycINFO. Web. 17 March 2015.
Dretzin, Rachel and Douglas Rushkoff. “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.” PBS. Frontline, 15 Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
Gasser, Urs and John Palfre. “Mastering Multitasking.” Educational Leadership 66.6 (2009): 14-19. Education Full Text. Web. 17 March 2015.
“Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, Apr. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2011.
Ophir, Eyal, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2009). Web. 15 Apr. 2011.
Pinsker, Joe. “Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation,” theatlantic.com. 10 March 2015. Web. 17 March 2015.
Stone, Linda. “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention.” Lindastone.net. N.p., Nov. 2009. Web. . 17 March 2015.
About The Author
Allan Goldstein is the Managing Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Allan’s growth within the field of Mindfulness-Based Interventions has led him to teach extensively to groups and individuals in various health care, university, military, business, and community settings. Allan has had a passion for learning and teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs since participating in his first program in 1993. He currently provides mentorship for current and future teachers through the MBSR Qualification and Certification program of the UC San Diego Mindfulness-Based Professional training Institute and mbsrmentorship.com.