Can we multi-task?

Photo by ryantron.

A recent Stanford University research concluded that regular multi-taskers had slower response times than those who rarely multi tasked in switching attention from one task to another. The study was divided in three main tests, which should test aspects that, authors believed,  must contribute to multitaskers’ skills.

The first test consisted on ignoring irrelevant interference while paying attention to one relevant information.
To test organisation of working memory, participants were presented with a series of letters, one at a time, and told to push a button when they saw a letter that they had seen exactly three letters previously. In the last test, participants were shown letters or numbers which were continually shifted, so they should remember the type of character (number or letter, consonant or vowel, even or odd) that was shown previously.

In all of theses experiments, people who considered themselves as multi-taskers had a significant lower performance that those who identify themselves as low multi-taskers.  “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking,” Professor Nass said.

Dave Crenshaw, a productivity coach and author of The Myth of Multitasking, affirms that “When people attempt to multi-task, what they are really doing is switching rapidly back and forth between tasks, what I call ‘switchtasking’. These switches cause people to lose time, and be incredibly less productive.”

Multi-tasking is praised as one of the most useful and distinct abilities of gamers in real live,  so should this research just obliterate that myth? Actually, I think we should take some other point in consideration. The division of the “multi-tasker” and “non multi-taskers” groups were apparently based on the student’s own opinion about himself, which, if I may say, is not quite a scientific.

Other interesting point is that, in the official study results note, the guinea pigs where referred as Media multitaskers. What actually is media in this sense? Internet? TV? Digital medias? Cinema? Therefore, I don’t doubt the research results, I just doubt its applicability and relevance to reality. Our reality.

At this point, I have to agree with Beck and Wade, that “the available scientific evidence suggests that the brain seldom truly multitasks”, but it can happen that some of the tasks in question had became routine in a way that one can concentrate in one tasks while do others in autopilot. Driving is the classical example, new drivers have problem changing gears while steering the wheel while thinking about the route and managing the pedals. But when one is used to all this tasks at the same time, one can also talk or sing while at it. So, driving is quite a multi-task skill and in order to perform it correctly, one must practice. Quite a lot, actually.

So, Beck and Wade conclude that “games might have trained a whole generation to multitask a little more easily, or to routinize tasks the rest of us have to actually think about it”. So, in this outlook, multitasking is possible since most of the tasks involved are autopilot-able. Therefore, it should be quite unlikely that one can multi-task two or more activities  that require reasoning.

I really haven’t understood how could this particular study show such a result, but what I believe is that while delimiting the guinea pigs in “media multi-taskers” [whatever media means in this context] and using only 100 students, the sampling might have got quite vitiated.