Ming the Mechanic:
Multi-tasking or not

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Multi-tasking or not2003-04-28 23:07
18 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

L.A.Times article (registration required) talks about multi-tasking and whether it is bad for you. Specifically it includes comments from a researcher who seems to think so.
"Chronic multi-tasking over many years poses a strong risk for ultimate brain damage," says David E. Meyer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. He is drawing on 30 years of laboratory research and published studies in the field.

Tension and confusion, those consequences wouldn't have surprised me. But brain damage?

Meyer explained: As we force ourselves to bounce from task to task and back again, we generate stress. Body and mind gear up to cope by releasing adrenaline and other hormones. This powerful medicine is good for a crisis, but hard on the machinery.[..]

Apart from brain damage and consequent depression, Meyer also noted the alarming likelihood that multi-taskers are losing the ability to concentrate.
Hm, I don't know. There's something to that. As a wired-up human who's likely to always be doing a number of things at the same time, I do notice that I have a harder time concentrating when I actually need to. I have 4 instant messenger programs open. I get e-mail every 10 minutes. I have about 30 windows open on my computer. One of them is cable TV with 400 channels. I'm surfing the web. I have actual work to do. I have a lot of notes on my desk about things I need to remember. I have 3 phone lines. My family comes in and asks me things all the time. There's a stack of books I'm all reading at the same time. I feel stressed and scattered a lot of the time.

But I haven't quite decided whether multi-tasking in itself is good or bad. Whether we're evolving and learning to be continuously connected while in motion, or whether we should become more vigorous about carving out quiet concentrated space for ourselves.

My kids appear to have evolved compared to me. My 19 year old daughter seems to be perfectly comfortable chatting online with a dozen people simultaneously, while she's on the phone with somebody else, and she's listening to music and watching TV, and somebody's visiting. Doesn't look like stress at all.

I suspect there is a state of engaged synergy that is available, a being-in-the-flow, where you're doing many things at once, but they somehow work together and support each other. As a dance. As opposed to the frantic scramble of trying to do many things at once that really don't belong in the same space.


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18 comments

30 Apr 2003 @ 13:24 by martha : age
I also think age is a big factor ming. I can't multi task the way I did when I was young. I think our bodies can handle the pace better when we are young. After reading what is on your computer screen I would get a head ache.  


30 Apr 2003 @ 21:22 by ming : Age
Maybe it is part of it. Well, I could certainly concentrate better when I was younger. And when I was a teenager parents would also then be uncomprehending when teenagers would insist on doing their homework while listening to music.  


3 May 2003 @ 11:14 by taranga @195.8.92.35 : multi-tasking
It depends on the nature of the individual tasks - quite a few tasks involve a period of waiting for a response [or for us poor dial-up surfers a download] so it is inevitable that you would fill in with bits of other tasks. What i really admire about my [now grown up] kids is that they can carry on a detailed discussion while writing a proposal and keep an eye on toddlers all at the same time. The most i can manage is to channel flick and watch several tv dramas or films at the same time as they always move very slowly. I do find that reading a good novel takes all my attention though, as you spend a lot of mental effort creating the visuals from the written word.  


3 May 2003 @ 13:33 by ming : Men and Women
I also notice that there's typically a difference between men and women. E.g. I can multi-task abstract subjects well, and jump around between many subjects without being uncomfortable. But I get stressed when there is much more than one physical thing going on at the same time. My wife has any mother's instincts and will quite easily and naturally keep track of multiple physical tasks. What the kids are doing, that the sprinklers are on in the yard, that the dishwasher is in the middle of a cycle, etc. But she would get annoyed if I jump around between too many points in a discussion. It seems that a certain wholistic way of doing things makes sense for many women. Including many things in the same picture. Whereas for me, multi-tasking is often to slice my time into little pieces occupied with entirely different things. Which is more likely to lead to conflict and stress.  


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