Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Dangers of Emailing, IMing, Texting, Calling ...

New studies show, yet again, that technology makes us stupid. Or at least less effective. And that the best way to accomplish something successfully -- whether it's driving a car, crossing a street, standing in a train station, or writing a book -- is to turn off the tech. I've blogged about the problems that come with constant emailing several times in the past. Now, today's New York Times reports on the newest studies into how multitasking messes with your brain:

"The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

"Mr. Marois and three other Vanderbilt researchers reported in an article last December in the journal Neuron that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once. Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images."
There was no delay when participants did the tasks one at a time, but when researchers asked them to do tasks two at a time, both tasks were completed slower. This isn't surprising. What's interesting to me is that they actually pinpointed the area in the brain where this bottleneck takes place, and showed that this delay happens regardless of what multitasking you're doing, and which senses it involves. So listening to something (say, music with lyrics, or a television) while reading something causes the same bottleneck effect in the brain as trying to read two things at once. Which is very interesting. The solution, according to the Times:

"These experts have some basic advice. Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea."

No big surprise there. But still, very interesting.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder, though, if the degree of familiarity with the task(s) has an impact, and what can actually constitute "multitasking." Listening to music and doing the dishes isn't very difficult and no one would warn against it. Why would the bottle-neck seem to be lesser? There would seem to be a difference between motor-skill multi-tasking and higher level cognitive multi-tasking. There is also a presumed degree of linearity of the thought process during multi-tasking. I say this cuz I am listening to music while writing this, and I notice myself drifting in and out of those 2 spaces, sometime beneficially. And I will have you know, I am a very good cell-phone-talkin-driver. ;-)

8:57 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

Concentrating on two things at once may indeed be a limitation. But is not multitasking a sequential undertaking whereby the involved human is actually concentrating on one thing at a time? Meaning: isn't multitasking a systematic arrangement process, where one concentrates on on Task A, then Task B, then Task C. Task A may be one dish washed, Task B may be a Scarlatti cantana mentally masticated upon, Task C may be responding to the burning souffle in the oven.

I do not wish to compare the human brain to a robot, and you, Rebecca, are far more the science writer than I am likely ever to be, but are not these results an ongoing probe of the brain's limitations? Daniel Schacter's helpful book, THE SEVEN SINS OF MEMORY, clearly illustrates that the brain's physiological inadequacies cause far greater (and often quite interesting!) solecisms when merging with the everyday world.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Skloot said...

Hi Ed -- sorry, meant to reply to this comment earlier then got buried with deadlines.

Yours is a good question, and I think it's one scientists are still trying to figure out. But off the top of my head (amd I'm no expert on this) I think this study found that allocation problems show up when you try to do two things at once ... when you're concentrating on thing A (say, driving) then you start concentrating on thing B (say, cell phone), the systematic thing you're talking about becomes a problem, because your brain shifts resources from A to B and can't devote equal resources to AB at the same time. Or something like that, which I've definitely been guilty of.

1:20 PM  

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