from Stanford University research report & The Seattle Times

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy.  Everything distracts them.”  So says Professor Clifford Nass, one of Stanford’s researchers for their study of multitaskers’ problem-solving skills.

Social scientists have long insisted that the human brain can’t process more than one string of information at a time.  But other researchers guessed that high multitaskers have extraordinary control over what they think about and what they focus on.  So Nass and his colleagues, Eval Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set up a study to learn what special gifts devout multitaskers had that the rest of us don’t.

They split 100 students into two groups, high and low multitaskers, and ran them through three tests: focus, memory and the ability to quickly shift focus from one task to another.

In the first test, the two groups were told to ignore blue triangles intermixed with red triangles and concentrate only on the red.  The high multitaskers simply couldn’t do it.  They were constantly distracted by the blue.

In the second test, the students were shown sequences of letters and asked to indicate when which letters had previously been shown.  It was a piece of cake for the low multitaskers, but the high multitaskers had difficulty keeping the letters sorted in their brains.

In the third test, the groups were shown images of a mix of letters and numbers.  In one sequence, they were told to focus on only letters and determine if they were vowels or consonants. In the next sequence of letters and numbers, they were told to determine if the digits were odd or even.  Again, the light multitaskers far outperformed the high multitaskers.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir observed.  “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them.  They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Wagner added, “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.  That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

And we aren’t short of distractions, whether we’re at home or at work.  In 2008, we consumed three times as much information as we did in 1960.  We’re constantly shifting our attention.  New research shows that computer users at work change windows or check email or other programs nearly 37 times an hour.

A San Francisco entrepreneur and his wife both study their iPods at the breakfast table.  While the wife prepares breakfast, she’s studying a news feed on one corner of a computer screen while the entrepreneur checks his email on the rest of the screen.

He sleeps with a laptop or iPhone on his chest.  He forgets dinner plans and has difficulty focusing on his family.  His wife complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.  I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged.”

It’s not just family obligations he forgets.  Working amid his usual electronic tangle of two computer screens for email, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was working on, he missed the most important email he’d ever received—and didn’t notice it till 12 days later.

After apologizing to the sender, the entrepreneur salvaged a $1,300,000 deal.  Lucked out, despite, not because of, being a high multitasker.


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