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Multitasking Doesn't Work

Multitasking Doesn't Work

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Published by: AdibM on Sep 11, 2010
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09/11/2010

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 Today's kids are into multi-tasking. This is the generation hooked on iPods,IM'ing, video games - not to mention TV! Many people in my generation thinkit is wonderful that kids can do all these things simultaneously and areimpressed with their competence.Well, as a teacher of such kids when they reach college, I am not impressed.College students these days
 
have short attention spans and have troubleconcentrating. They got this way in secondary school. I see this in the middle-school outreach program I help run. At this age kids are really wrapped up inmulti-tasking―
at the expense of focus
.According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study last year, school kids in allgrades beyond the second grade committed, on average, more than six hoursper day to TV or videos, music, video games, and computers. Almost one-third reported that "most of the time" they did their homework while chattingon the phone, surfing the Web, sending instant messages, watching TV, orlistening to music.Kids think that this entertainment while studying helps their learning. Itprobably does make learning less tedious, but it clearly
makes learningless efficient and less effective
. Multi-tasking violates everything weknow about how memory works. Now
we
have objective scientific evidencethat multi-tasking impairs learning. A recent National Academy of Sciencesstudy with college-age students (Reference #1 below) did an experimentwhere the subjects were to learn a task under two conditions, one with nodistractions and the other while listening to high- and low-tone beeps,attending to the high ones. The total amount of learning was the superficiallythe same in both conditions, but with distractions, the learning wasstereotyped and learners had difficulty in applying what they learned to othercontexts and situations. The study also used functional MRI (fMRI) to assessbrain activity under test conditions. The imaging data indicated that the
memory task 
and the
distraction stimuli
engage different parts of the
 
brain and that
these regions probably compete with each other.
 The study did not address the issue of passive distraction, such as listening tomusic while studying. I think that music can also be a major distraction,except for certain kinds of music played under muted conditions (see mybook Thank You, Brain, For All You Remember. What You Forgot Was MyFault, pages 47, 165, and 197, Reference #2 below) .One reason that multi-tasking interferes with memory is that
the brainreally does not multi-task.
It just fools you into thinking so, and the waythe brain does handle multiple tasks makes it hard to remember anything.
Brains Can’t Really Multi-task 
Our brain works hard to fool us into thinking it can do more than one thing ata time. It can't. Recent MRI studies at Vanderbilt (#3) prove that the brain isnot built for good multi-tasking. When trying to do two things at once,
thebrain temporarily shuts down one task while trying to do the other.
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In the study, even doing something as simple as pressing a button when animage is flashed caused a delay in brain operation. MRI images showed that acentral bottleneck occurred when subjects were trying to do two things atonce, such as pressing the appropriate computer key in response to hearingone of eight possible sounds and uttering an appropriate verbal responsewhen seeing images. Activity in the brain that was associated with each taskwas prioritized, showing up first in one brain area and then in the other ― notin both areas simultaneously. In other words,
the brain only worked onone task at a time, postponing the second task and deceiving thesubjects into thinking they were working on both taskssimultaneously.
 The delay between switching functions was as long as asecond. It is highly likely, though not yet studied, that the delays andconfusion magnify with increases in the number of different things one triesto do simultaneously.So what has this got to do with memory?Well, if you try to memorize the first task and the brain immediatelyswitches to the second task, performance of the second task interferes
with
 
consolidation of the memory of the first task 
.In my earlier article on memory consolidation, I explained how early memoryis vulnerable to interference and must be protected from distractions andnew information in order for the
memory to be made permanent.
Likewise, there are proactive effects wherein what you learn on the first taskcan interfere with learning on the second. All these problems arecompounded if there are three or more tasks in a “multi-tasking” experience.
Multi-tasking and School Performance
A study of 517 California high-school students found that grades were lowerin those who socially interacted via MySpace, instant messaging (IM)accounts, or who used cell phones. In the study (4), students answered aquestionnaire on what social networking devices they used and when theyused them. The answers were paired with the grades (from the previous yearand the most recent report card).In this study, 72% of the students had a My Space account, 76% had a cellphone, and 68% had an IM address. Those who had a MySpace account hadsignificantly lower grades than those without an account. The same was truefor those that used IM, compared with those who did not. Cell phone use wasalso associated with lower grades and the effect was magnified if textmessaging was used on cell phones. Not surprisingly,if these devices were used during homework, the grades were evenlower than for students who used these technologies outside of homework. Almost half reported text messaging during class time, andtheir grades were lower than the students who only used IM outside of class. These are correlational data and do not prove that using these devicescauses lower grades. But it is a good bet. Multi-tasking, as when using thecommunication devices while trying to do homework or learn in class, can beexpected to interfere with memory. Poor memory yields lower grades.
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Bill Klemm--- W. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. Scientist, professor, author,speaker As a professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, Bill hastaught about the brain and behavior at all levels, from freshmen, to seniors,to graduate students to post-docs. His recent books include Thank You, Brain,For All You Remember. What You Forgot Was My Fault and Core Ideas inNeuroscience.
References- #1 Foerde, K., Knowlton, Barbara J., and Poldrack, Russell A. 2006. Modula-tion of competing memory systems by distraction. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 103:11778–11783.– #2 Klemm, W. R. 2004. Thank You Brain for All You Remember. What YouForgot Was My Fault. Benecton Press. 312 pages.– #3 Dux, P. E., Ivanoff, J., Asplund, C. LO., and Marois, R. 2007. Isolation of aCentral Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI. Neu-ron. 52 (6): 1109–1120– #4 Pierce, Tamyra, and Vaca, Roberto. 2007. Distracted: academic perfor-mance differences between teen users of MySpace and other communicationtechnologies. Proceedings EISTA. Orlando, FL. July. http://www.cyber-inf.org/imsci2007/Program/html/program-5.htm
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