October 8, 2009
Many people think that those who frequently multi-task (e.g. text message while listening to an Ipod, reading a newspaper, or working) and get by with it do so because they’re adept. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online (August 24, 2009), researchers at Stanford University differed with that conclusions, finding that college students who habitually immersed themselves in various media were not very skilled at all in tests of memory and attention. Ironically enough, their task-switching ability was not good.
“In a nutshell, they’re terrible at multi-tasking,” stated researcher Dr. Clifford Nass. The study’s findings suggest that today’s array of devices which make multi-tasking possible and supposedly easy may not be a good thing.
At the start of the study, the researchers assumed that heavy multi-taskers had some innate ability that enabled them to handle several tasks at once. It was thought that multi-taskers were good at filtering out irrelevant distractions from their environment. A simple cognitive test of such filtering overturned this assumption, however. Habitual multi-taskers, when asked to focus on the characteristics of a group of red triangles while ignoring a few extraneous blue triangles, performed even more poorly than people who did not multi-task.
Another test that measured the brain’s ability to organize and file information yielded the same type of result: when the multi-taskers were asked to switch tasks, they were actually slower than non multi-taskers at switching their attention from one task to another.
As evidenced by this study, regular multi-taskers are not actually good at what they do. The simple habit of multi-tasking can cause sensory overload, which in turn may decrease the ability to focus attention, actually causing a suppression of the frontal lobe of the brain.
Years ago, media expert Alvin Toffler stated that constant stimulation shuts down the analytical processes and ultimately the ability to face life rationally. This constant stimulation eventually leads to escape techniques involving withdrawal, apathy, and rejection of disciplined thinking when faced with difficult duties and decisions.
The fact that society is continually developing tools to make multi-tasking easier is not necessarily a good thing. As the Stanford study indicates, the proliferation of multi-tasking tools only increases the chance that people will voluntarily overload their senses, thereby impairing their mental performance.
Topics: Health News