Multitasking and attention

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“Many denizens of the digital world, for instance, pride themselves on being able to multitask, carrying on with their essential work even as they graze among all the other incoming channels of what’s-up.

 

 

But compelling research at Stanford University has shown that this very idea is a myth—the brain does not “multitask” but rather switches rapidly from one task (my work) to others (all those funny videos, friends’ updates, urgent texts . . . ).

 

 

Attention tasks don’t really go on in parallel, as “multitasking” implies; instead they demand rapid switching from one thing to the other.

 

And following every such switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished.

 

 

It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration.

 

 

The harm spills over into the rest of life.

 

 

For one, the inability to filter out the noise (all those distractions) from the signal (what you meant to focus on) creates a confusion about what’s important, and so a drop in our ability to retain what matters.

 

 

Heavy multitaskers, the Stanford group discovered, are more easily distracted in general.

 

 

And when multitaskers do try to focus on that one thing they have to get done, their brains activate many more areas than just those relevant to the task at hand—a neural indicator of distraction.

 

 

Even the ability to multitask efficiently suffers.

 

 

As the late Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, put it, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” which hampers not just concentration but also analytic understanding and empathy.”
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