Multi Tasking

There’s a common myth that humans can multi-task and work well at all the tasks upon which they are concentrating. First, let’s discuss the term multi-task. It’s derived from computer speak then best definition is:

apparent performance by an individual of handling more than one task at the same time.

Now, I am going to mention what the science tells us about multi-tasking. When I say science in any of my communications I mean the broad consensus of the outcomes of scientific studies. I don’t mean just what a single scientist or person says, I aim to give you the CONSENSUS. Over time science has looked at things, asked questions and tried to answer them. The human endeavour has produced, over time, a consensus on how reality works. When we find errors we correct them. Science is a self correcting process. If things are wrong, science will correct them. The consensus changes with our latest understanding of what is correct. You will always be able to find a scientist who will disagree with the consensus, especially with politically charged ideas [anthropogenic global climate change], but the consensus is important as it gives us the best ideas of how things work.

OK, my research here is mostly from Wikipedia. I am perfectly aware that this can be a site that has reliability issues, but on matters of science I think it is a good start point. I would NOT look at Wikipedia to get a balanced view of politics or people, but on science issues it is very good.

There has been a reasonable amount of research into human multi-tasking and the results of these experiments indicate that although we can switch tasks quite quickly we can perform none at the best of our ability. If you multitask you are going to do all the jobs to a poorer standard than if you concentrate on a single thing at a time. Moreover, if you wish to complete all tasks to a good ability then you will get them done quicker if you concentrate on a single task at a time.

Our brain is NOT a computer and the analogy fails all the time if it is thought of as a computer. Our memory is remarkably plastic, our brain function is plastic and our concentration can only really be on one thing. If you start reading about how our brains work and the amount of information they ignore and just make up you will be very surprised.

There is no evidence that there is a gender difference in multi-tasking, so if people say women are good at it you should correct them. You should also correct people who say they can multitask. Point out the evidence says that you will perform the tasks less well than if you cover them individually. These people will try to argue from personal experience but they would be wrong to do so. We are very subject to confirmation bias and incorrect thoughts that personal experience is pretty much always subjective. The reality is often different – just remember that dancing bear in the basketball players video.

I was going to give you personal examples of failures to multitask, but my previous paragraph excludes me from doing so. In which case I will just give you some more general ideas to confirm in your heads that what I say is generally true [I’m using your preponderance to have confirmation bias as a route to accepting this communication].

Ever been driving and talking or doing something and then suddenly thought: I don’t remember the last mile of driving?

Ever phased out of a conversation because something is happening in the background?

If you talk to people who design cockpits for airplanes they will always talk about reducing the pilot work-load. This is so that the pilot can concentrate on flying the plane rather than have to worry about checking things all the time and flicking switches. If the pilot has a reduced work-load s/he will be better at doing his/her job properly and being aware of the important things.

When driving cars it is important to concentrate on the driving aspect of being on the road and not other stuff happening in the car. It is your job to make sure you are safe to you and the other road users around you. If things go wrong it is your concentration that could save you and others. The problem is that for most of the time when driving nothing goes wrong and so people concentrate minimally on driving and spend their time “multi-tasking”. This reduces their ability to pay attention to what is going on around them. Gladly it is quite rare for shit to happen but it does happen and you need your whole attention when it does. Pilots spend their entire careers practising over and over again the drills needed to save an aircraft and the lives on board so that if/when it does happen they can automatically make the right decisions. We don’t practise any of this in cars, apart from an emergency stop for our driving test, and so this causes problems when things do go wrong. People are not practised at what to do. I would argue that this is largely because it is not financially worth it to save a few lives on the roads compared to the investment that would be needed to make everyone practise car saving techniques regularly.

That last paragraph loses the plot a little. But here’s the summary and a little more exposition. People can only perform a single task to their total ability. If they attempt to multi-task then the overall effect is a significant drop in their output and understanding.

In terms of education this communication explains why children can’t do homework in front of the television. I would also argue that listening to music will hamper their understanding as they will concentrate on the music and not what they are studying, or they are doing both but to poor effect. I have some music on while writing this but I couldn’t tell you what words they are singing because I am mostly concentrating on this writing. I am using the music to block out other distractions and this may prove useful for learning if it is in an environment where there are auditory distractions. Finally, we take examinations in quiet rooms because the quiet allows us to concentrate on the task in hand.

Now, for some Gran Turismo.