Have you seen any high-tech jugglers? They keep several instant message threads and email conversations going, listen to music, watch television, and jump from one website to another while trying to complete another task!
A new study conducted at Stanford University has found those who regularly bombard themselves with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time! The researchers found that heavy multitaskers pay a significant mental price.
Neuro-scientists have known it is impossible for the human brain to process more than one string of information at a time. They have assumed those who multitask must have a special gift to control what they pay attention to. To test this assumption these researchers put about 100 students through a series of three tests.
Subjects were split into two groups: those who don’t do much multitasking and those who do a lot. In the first set subjects were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice. Each participant was asked to recall if the red rectangles in the second frame were in a different location than in the first frame, being told to ignore the blue rectangles. The low multitaskers had no problems, but the high multitaskers performed very poorly–they were distracted by the irrelevant blue rectangles.
Maybe the high multitaskers had better memory because they couldn’t ignore the irrelevant? However, on the second test they were shown sequences of alphabetical letters, but the high multitaskers did far worse than the low multitaskers because they couldn’t remember when a letter was repeated. The theory of a special gift was shattered.
If the high multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant data or organize their memories well, maybe they were really good at switching from one task to another faster than the others? On the third test the subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time. When they were instructed to pay attention to the numbers they were asked if the digits were even or odd. When asked to focus on the letters they had to identify if they were vowels or consonants.
Again, the light multitaskers performed much better than the heavy multitaskers! Eyal Ophir, the lead author says the heavy multitaskers “couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. They are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t seem to keep things separate in their minds… That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by the irrelevant information.”
Maybe it’s time to heed the counsel of Paul, “but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal...(Philippians 3:13,14). By taking off the headphones, ignoring the emails, and turning off the TV–to focus on one thing at a time we may accomplish much more in the end!