Is multitasking making us scatterbrained?

It's too easy to take potshots at changing brain functions from our cushy seats in the bygone era. The new ways our brains have begun to function appear deficient compared to the ways they have since ink showed up on paper. However, what appears on the surface as deficient, is actually efficient in ways we don't yet appreciate. In my view, multitasking is not making us scatterbrained. It's restoring our natural way to be alive.

Our brains go through phenomenal gyrations to follow a printed sentence on a page or screen. Our natural inclinations to scan the panorama get overridden by the need to focus our sight on the squiggles we're paying close attention to with effort. Our instinct to look that the sound we just heard or movement that caught our attention has to be suppressed. Then we're obligated to turn the squiggles of text into letters, words and sentences. Once we've figured out what it says, we work on what it means. Then there's another sentence after the one we've just devoted significant processing capacity to decoding.

Marshal McLuhan forewarned that our brains would alter how they process sensory data thanks to the hidden effects of electronics. A trend that started with the telegraph, phonograph and telephone is in full swing with ear buds and video screens on cellphones, PDA's, laptops and tablets. He suggested we would get a divorce after being wedded to mechanical technologies and remarry all things electrical. Our senses would return to immersive experiences of acoustic spaces and panoramic vision. We'd lose our isolated point of view and get back into oneness with what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch.

The word "multitasking" speaks in reference to factories, motors and mechanisms. It's a transition word like "horseless carriage" that clings to the past while describing the future. It imagines that multitaskers are getting jobs done, being productive and making progress by multitasking. It assumes that we are "human doings" that grow up to function like reliable printing presses, scheduled railroads and organized factories.

I've been wondering what word will replace the word "multitasking", like "automobile" replaced "horseless carriage". I've been toying with possibilities like "multi-queuing", "multi-attentions" or "multi-responsiveness". It's not that we're getting things done simultaneously when we "multitask". It's that we've got several windows open and several responses we're in the midst of formulating. We're paying attention to more than one follower from our network paying attention to us. We're immersed in the oneness of multiple streams of inputs. We're functioning just like our brains when were "letting it all in" from all five senses at once. We acting naturally once again. We're acting like human beings.


  1. Ken Allen made a good point about multi-tasking in learning. He said that at some point, to learn, a student needs to focus and stop multi-tasking.

    I like your analogy to it being like an open window. It's there, perhaps waiting for your attention. However, to really get something done, you need to concentrate on one of the windows and close it (or minimize it) when it is not as important.

    BTW there was a good report on PBS Frontline on the Digital Nation which looks at the brain function during multi-tasking.

  2. I also watched the Digital Nation documentary on Frontline nine days ago. I was distressed when I saw the design of the experiment with the multitasking M.I.T students. It seemed to be asking the same question as "if you hold a book in each hand, can you read them at the same time?". It assumes that school work and factory work are the only ways to get things done. The experiment failed to explore questions relevant to the new uses of Wifi and G3 connectivity like: "can you handle four people paying attention to you at once?" or "can you keep three conversations going simultaneously if they don't all require your immediate attention?. In the world where those questions deserve further investigation, work gets done collaboratively, socially and open-mindedly. It's quite a contrast to the focus that is essential to reading, school work and jobs in assembly lines.

    Thanks for all this food for thought, Virginia. I'll follow up on all this in today's blog post.

  3. I agree with you on the "experiments" they conducted. Like you, I saw a number of flaws in their design and results. One area that US researchers overlook is how polichronic cultures are able to communicate effectively. They would be "multi-tasking" as part of their culture. Having taught in one of those cultures, I was able to develope the ability to speak to students, while monitoring the progress of multiple groups.

    I'd like to see research in which the brain waves of Latin Americans are compared to English speakers to see if there is a difference in how people from different cultures (monochronic vs. polychronic)process stimuli. We assume that the American brain is universal. However, couldn't there be differences in cultures? That is why the report on the Korean teens was interesting. I wonder if culturally they have been "programmed" towards technology the same as other teens with access to technology.

  4. I'm delighted to learn of your own "multi-tasking" in a culture that does the same. The research you'd like to see seems valuable to me too!

    There's been a lot of studies of how "pre-literate" cultures perceive their surroundings and process information differently from "literate" cultures. It has been speculated that the digital generation is reverting/progressing to those modes of perception and cognition. The Koreans may be extremely literate in the schooling and not an indicator of this perceptual shift.