“Think you can talk on the phone, send an instant message and read your e-mail all at once? Stanford researchers say even trying may impair your cognitive control.”
by ADAM GORLICK, Stanford University, Aug. 2009.
Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.
People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.
High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments.
But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.
“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”
Social scientists have long assumed that it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.
… Puzzled but not yet stumped on why the heavy multitaskers weren’t performing well, the researchers conducted a third test. If the heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else.
Wrong again, the study found.
The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.
Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.
“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds…”