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The myth of multitasking

6/7/2010 2:04:00 PM

The New York Times today ran an article about our obsession with technology and the impact it's having on everything from relationships with family members to our ability to focus on any one task for more than a few minutes at a time.

Entitled Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price, the article is long, which is ironic given the subject matter. Based on its own observations, most technophiles won't have the attention span to get past the first few paragraphs! That would be a shame, as the article contains a wealth of information and up-to-the-minute research on how technology is changing the way we think and act.

"Technology is rewiring our brains," said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists. This can be beneficial when it comes to selectively identifying and accumulating information, but researchers worry about the constant exposure to a multitude of media formats.

One of the by-products of the digital age is the number of people who proudly claim to be multitaskers – able to perform numerous tasks at once, thereby dramatically increasing their productivity and efficiency. We might see it in ourselves or in people we work with, and we increasingly see it in our kids: their belief in their ability to do homework, listen to an iPod, watch TV and update a Facebook account, all at the same time!

However, the Times article cites compelling research that suggests that multitaskers are not quite the super-efficient overachievers they claim to be. When faced with tests that required them to filter out irrelevant information and juggle effectively between multiple tasks, it turns out that multitaskers performed significantly worse that non-multitaskers!

Try these tests for yourself. The New York Times has a game that tests how well you filter out distractions, as well as a game that tests how well you switch between various tasks.)

Other research has shown that some people can indeed juggle multiple information streams but these "supertaskers" represent less than 3 percent of the population. For the rest of us, reaching for an iPhone or a BlackBerry should be seen for what it is: a serious distraction from whatever else we are doing, whether it's enjoying a family meal, driving a car, or just talking with our kids.

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