Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Multitasking Myth

This New York Times article is only the most recent in a number of articles that discuss the implications for our brains of being constantly wired.

Here's a brief excerpt:

Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could barely process two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about them. But [Eyal] Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might be rewiring themselves to handle the load.


In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at a computer were briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a similar image and were asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple task until the addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects were told to ignore them.

The [test subjects identified as] multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the non-multitaskers at recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In other words, they had trouble filtering out the blue ones — the irrelevant information.[emphasis mine]

That's just it: if I'm attempting to multitask by checking email, blogs, etc., while in a meeting, everything on my laptop seems equally important—and less important than the meeting. From the article, again:

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”
The problem with this behavior arises when we're supposed to be doing something other than looking for mental catnip. We're a school with a 1-1 laptop program. The catnip is constantly dangled before our students' noses. I've generally found that by their sophomore year, students are aware of when they're not focusing on the class. There are always a few who take notes on their laptops, though even these sometimes hear the siren call of tumblr or email or thisissand. But the glassy-eyed stare of the student who isn't actually listening to what's going on around her is hard to miss.

Looking for catnip is a problem for adults, too. A 1.5 hour faculty meeting that follows immediately on the heels of a long instructional day with few real breaks might seem to be the perfect moment to catch up on email or see what's new on Facebook. But if I take the implications of this article seriously, the last thing I should do during a meeting is crack open my laptop. I challenge any of you reading this to take these tests. After taking them, I found that I can focus one only one thing at a time—which is good, but means that I cannot successfully multitask, no matter how hard I try. And I don't switch well between tasks (doubtless a result of so many failed attempts at multitasking), so if I'm reading an email, it might take me a few seconds to switch back to listening.

I've been making a habit recently of watching my tendency to distract myself, my urge to seek catnip. Result: I found myself in a meeting the other day (not long after I'd read this article, in fact), totally engrossed in what was happening on my neighbor's laptop screen—and oblivious to the meeting leader's asking me a direct question. I didn't even hear him.

On top of actually being distracted, there is the appearance of distraction. Any teacher who has seen a student spend a class paying attention only to the screen in front of him knows how it feels to see folks apparently not listening. Surely, my colleagues deserve the knowledge that I'm not seeing their presentations during faculty meetings as a time to catch up on other stuff. And my fellow committee-members deserve to be listened to with my whole brain. Even in the last week of school, even when there's so much to be done. There's always something to be done.

So I'm making a public resolution: keep the laptop closed during meetings, unless I'm jotting down a note. And if I do open my laptop to take notes, I'll close it right away once I've written down what I need to remember. Maybe by being more aware of this tendency within myself, I can also be a better model to students.

No comments: