Ming the Mechanic:
Hypertaskers do things faster but not better

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 Hypertaskers do things faster but not better2004-09-05 23:59
15 comments
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Article in azcentral. Yeah, I'm probably one too. A hypertasker. Somebody who tries to do many things at once, who's always working, and who gets rashes if they don't have a fast internet connection close by. But doing many things at the same time isn't necessarily faster or even good for us, some researchers seem to say.
"Hypertasking is excessiveness," says Patricia Arredondo, associate professor in Arizona State University's graduate counseling program. "It's overload in the sense of having your brain trying to respond to a number of stimuli at the same time, and that can really start to cost you."
Excessiveness? Seems a little strong. But maybe they're right.
Researchers argue that the brain isn't wired to do more than one thing at a time without loss of efficiency and quality.

In a recent study at Harvard University, psychologist Yuhong Jiang studied the brains of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as they performed "extremely easy tasks." When the students were asked to identify a letter and a color simultaneously, it took twice as long as when they did each task separately. In addition, brain activity diminished.

"When the brain tries to do two tasks (at once), instead of increasing activity it has decreased activity," Jiang says. "It's not as efficient."

Jiang's research, published in the June issue of Psychological Science, adds to a growing body of science that shows the downside of doing too much at once.
Hm, I'd say it isn't necessarily just too much. It is that certain activities might well dovetail together, and create a certain kind of synergy, where others don't. Like an example they give, one might very well go for a walk and talk with a good friend at the same time. One does several things at the same time, and yet one doesn't get stressed.

But trouble certainly starts if we get anywhere close to trying to do time-sharing like a computer. You know, for years computers have pretended to do many things at the same time by slicing each second into many parts, and simply switching from task to task very quickly. Doing a little bit of one task, then a little bit of another, etc, and shortly return to the first one, and do a little bit more from where you left off. Might work for a computer, but that's the kind of thing that drives people crazy.

So, if we have to talk brains, the problem might appear when we do several of the same kind of thing at the same time. Might not be stressful to walk and eat and juggle and talk at the same time, even if that is stretching it a little bit, because those are different systems. But if we need to talk to two people at the same time, we start getting inefficient and stressed. Just like if we're trying to taste two different foods at the same time.
"How much can we push one part of the brain to do two things (at once)?" he asks. "Mother Nature didn't think we'd be sitting at a computer with four windows opened and the phone ringing. It's a cultural invention."

But then, so was reading, he notes. "And now we all read."
So it isn't so much that we do strange and new things. It is more when we try to make several things occupy the same space when they can't. Some things can co-exist, if they complement each other, or if they operate on different wavelengths, so to speak. But if they're trying to use the same wavelength and they collide, then we start being just very busy and very inefficient.

If we assume that we actually do need to deal with a much greater amount of continuous information than in past times, the task becomes to make it all appear simple and coherent. You know, a library isn't confusing, even if there's a million volumes in it. Reading 5 books at the same time, and not having time for it, that's confusing. Looking at a picture of the weather patterns on the planet, that typically doesn't stress us (unless there's a hurricane heading our way), but trying to predict the weather, while also trying to remember your shopping list, and keep track of your schedule, that might be confusing and stressful. The trick is to make it all fit together. To make information scalable, so that more of it doesn't have to mean that it collides.


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15 comments

6 Sep 2004 @ 03:19 by Alex Halavais @67.21.89.216 : Serial hypertasking
This is a little silly. It assumes that someone with a phone, and a dual monitor, say with an mp3 playing and a long "to do" list (hey, that's me!) is in fact doing much simultaneously. Instead, most of those who use all of these devices do so in order to *better* control their environment. We live in "real time" systems, and the key to managing such systems is setting up a hierarchy of interrupts.

About the only thing I'm doing simultaneously is listening to music while performing other tasks. I perform those other tasks serially. Because I do so in shorter spurts than many are used to, it may *appear* that I am splitting my concentration, but this is only an illusion.  



6 Sep 2004 @ 07:41 by vaxen : the brain...
is the ultimate multitasker. where d o these people get off anyway? supressing the rest of humanity with their infantile notions of what is possible! so much for psychology and so forth. hahahahaha multitask on, people, it is really how you do things anyway! one task at a time? hahahahahahaha

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6 Sep 2004 @ 08:34 by ming : Evolution
It is of course quite likely that our increased connectedness makes us evolve, and makes our brains develop different pathways that support it. I notice that newer generations (than myself) seem to more naturally do several things at the same time without breaking a sweat. And that they're less limited by having to do things serially than I am.  


6 Sep 2004 @ 19:14 by qmal : paralell thinking processes
I like the evolve thing ,,,I think we are both evolving and adapting to the rush of the techno age. Creating brain-ware as necessary , possibly born with new archetypes to help enable this process. I think , the biological/ genetic relationships to such adaptation/evolution has been going on for at least a hundred years and is an continuation of the already in place socio-adaptive evolution that has been progressing for thousands of years. I too, am amazed at the efficiency that my children take on this techno-adaptive evolutional process.Kids multi-tasking..know what you mean..My oldest daughter knits ,watches a cooking show on TV, operates filezilla on one machine , processes pictures on another, reads a blog and talks to me, apparently all at the same time, oh not to mention the constant stream of messenger messages that are coming in. She is switching a bit there but I have wondered just how much stuff is she handling at once? Well -one learns the language of the tribe your raised in. It is not with out difficulty though, if one of those machines doesn't work right or a stich is wrong , watch out , I need to duck and go hide in the dog house or something. I am lucky if I can do two of those things at once. In studies once, I read some researchers were suggesting that we handle approximately 7 things at once in our normal daily conscious minds, two of those channels would be consumed with primal thought flow. So about five flows of thought, they thought. If they were correct in their analysis it would suggest that we should easily be able to do five things at once, but not so, thinking flow-input output- hand, eye, thought coordination are fundamentally attached processes. I believe we can create a variety of parallel thought processes and perform them at once, but we have to work on it. Think about driving a car for instance . We take in a incredible amount of information at once and process that information into an almost equally incredible variety of actions to procure guidance of the vehicle. Also I think I have experienced a few different states of mind where that number 5, increases to say hundreds possibly thousands of aware processes at once. So I guess state of mind and ability to think multiple thought streams at once are connected in some ways. Trying to do to much at once does wear one down ... a few years back I was trying to run 5 businesses , the home stuff, the family stuff and few other things at once in life and it proved to be much to much .... Macro-multitasking. The stress was quite draining. I had to recede , rest and recollect. I am okay now. I think.  


7 Sep 2004 @ 11:51 by ming : 7 marbles
That concept, that we can keep track of maybe seven things at a time, seems about right to me. Even a little at the high end. And it doesn't mean 7 full channels of totally different stuff. I might remember that I'm cooking dinner, and there's some clothes in the washer, and I have an appointment in an hour, and I'm working on something I'm writing, and I'm a little hungry. That's only five, and I'd be at risk of losing track when I add more. But they're all sort of in the same neighborhood, here in my house.

But we habitually do thousands of things at the same time. Keeping a human body running is a massive multi-tasking operation. But most of it takes place automatically at a sub-conscious level, and we might get away with just thinking about simple stuff, like when and what to eat and whether or not to go for a bicycle ride. And driving a car requires hundreds of interacting perceptions and concepts and finely calibrated actions. But, again, it is mostly sub-conscious, automatic skills. We get away with reducing it in our conscious awareness to just 3,2,1 or even zero "things". Like, "I'm driving" and "I need to turn soon" and "I wonder what that truck is up to". That's 3. Or if everything is routine, we might tune out altogether, and suddenly find ourselves in our driveway after driving home, without involving any conscious thought.

So it is not really that we can't do many, many things at once. Or that we don't have enough conscious marbles to play with. But maybe that we sometimes aren't good enough in converting conscious factors into sub-conscious one's. We can do marvelous things, as long as we can do it mostly without thinking. Our conscious faculties are pitifully inadequate for many activities. I'd be very afraid of, for example, somebody trying to drive a car just with the pieces they hold in their conscious mind. Run for cover.

But, hey, if the pieces can all work together, and we can maintain a calm simplicity in our conscious focus, while letting the massive multi-tasking go on under the surface, then there's no particular limit.  



8 Sep 2004 @ 08:54 by Julian @62.188.6.5 : letting the unconscious work for you
Hi Ming

Trackback pinging seems to be faulty, not sure which end, but have posted a followup at http://www.synesthesia.co.uk/blog/archives/2004/09/08/hypertasking/

best regards

Julian  



8 Sep 2004 @ 08:54 by Synesthesia @80.71.16.101 : Hypertasking
[{link:http://www.synesthesia.co.uk/blog/archives/2004/09/08/hypertasking/|trackback}]: Ming links to this article about research into "Hypertasking" which suggests that although frantic multi-tasking (with the help of phones, IM, email, feeds, etc., etc., etc.) has the appearance of productivity the reality is of significantly reduced...  


8 Sep 2004 @ 08:55 by Julian @62.188.6.5 : Trackback
...I take it back it is working but there must have been something very slow in the way as it timed out on me four times before "sticking"!  


8 Sep 2004 @ 11:42 by ming : Trackback
Well, I just implemented my incoming trackback a few days ago, so it might very well be something on my end that isn't quite right yet.  


26 Oct 2004 @ 15:46 by missdipsy @129.11.77.160 : automaticity
I'm actually writing an essay on this very topic for my psychology degree at the moment (thats how I ended up at this site!). Ming hit the nail on the head in his commment "7 marbles" when he talked about automaticity, we can do several things at once if they are automatic (either things that are innate, like breathing, or things that we have learnt, like driving a car). From the vast bulk of research on this subject, it seems like we are just not capable of truly doing "2 things at once" unless all but one of them are fully automatic. Although sometimes it seems as though we are doing several things at once, we are usually switching our attention between them, rather than actually processing them in parallel.
The point about younger generations seeming to be particularly proficient at multitasking is probably just related to this automaticity phenomenon, as many of the tasks they are doing, such as using a computer, watching TV etc, have become second nature and therefore don't require a great deal of concious processing power to execute, probably needing only a brief moment or two of concious attention once in a while when something more complex is going on.
I think that the "7 things at once" refers to the number of things we can hold in our working memory (aka short term memory), based on a famous study by Miller, which showed that, on average, we can only hold around 7 discrete "packages" of info in our heads at once. this obvously has implications for "multitasking" as, even if we can't conciously process several things at exactly the same time, we need to be able to remember what we were in the middle of doing before we switched our attention, which depends on short term memory.  



10 Nov 2004 @ 19:06 by peggy @206.227.1.145 : hypertasking
I'm looking for info that expands on Arredondo's theory (or reasearch) that the hypertasking damages the part of your mind that does the multitasking-is the damage permanent?  


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