From Scientific American, December 16, 2009                  Some of us brag about our ability to multitask.  Many job advertisements specify “ability to multitask.”  But research at Stanford University suggests that multitaskers suffer from a problem:  weaker self-control ability.

The researchers surveyed hundreds of college students on their use of 12 different types of media.  Students reported the number of hours per week they used each type of media as well as how often they used each type of media simultaneously with each other type of media.  Researchers then created a score for each student reflecting how much their lifestyle incorporated media-multitasking.

The next step was to survey those students who’d scored extremely high or low on their ability to control their attention, their responses and the contents of their memory.  They found that both the high- and low-media multitasking students were equally able to control their responses.

However, the heavy media-multitasking group had more difficulty when asked to ignore information that was in the environment or in their recent memory.  Surprisingly, they also had more trouble in switching rapidly between two different tasks.

The conclusions were that chronic media-multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions, and occasional media-multitaskers are better able to focus on important information.  The conclusions reflect two different strategies for information processing.  Frequent media-multitaskers are “breadth based” and explore any available information rather than restrict themselves.

Chronic media multitaskers develop the habit of treating all information equally.  In contrast, occasional media-multitaskers develop a “top down” control approach, meaning that control is initiated by higher-level mental processes such as cognition in working toward a specific goal.

Still, the “breadth based” approach is useful when “bottom-up” attention is required, meaning that cues from the external world drive attention through lower-level mental processes such as perception and habit.

My Take:  In most of my life, I’m a dedicated unitasker.  When I’m working on a blog or when I’m studying a subject for class, I turn off the music I love to listen to and close out my email so I’m not distracted by every ding announcing a spam arrival.

I resent commercials that interrupt the flow of a movie I’m watching on TV.  Very much top down.

Not until I read this study did I recognized that when I’m baking bread, for example, I take my cues from my environment and need to be aware of and respond to how moist or dry the dough is and what my next steps are.

When I’m sewing a garment, I need to be aware of and respond to how the fabric reacts to puckering or easing or pressing.  Very much bottom up.

Perhaps the tasks we perform are best served by flexibility in how we approach them.


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