The reality of multitasking

How often do you find yourself sitting in class, and also on Facebook or even doing an assignment for another class? If a lecture is a bit boring, our first tendency is to do something else. Surely we can multitask.

Ever more, many careers require multitasking. You need to be able to be constantly plugged in to your email and to the project you’re working on. You’re expected pay attention to everything at once.

The key to productivity must be multitasking, right? Actually, it turns out that our brains can’t multitask at all.  According to John Medina, microbiologist and author of Brain Rules, the act is mentally impossible.

“Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. You can’t do two independent things at the same,” said Medina in his lecture at the  Fall Workshop at Seton Hill University.

But you think, I can talk and walk at the same time, so why can’t I multitask? The problem is related to the brain’s attentional spotlight.

“The human brain multitasks just fine. If you’re paying attention to me at the same time you are also regulating your heart beat and your lungs,” said Medina.

When our brains are confronted with a mental task our attentional spotlight “lights up” that area. If we try to pay attention to something else (like a text message or Facebook) our spotlight has to move to light up that area. Without the attentional spotlight focused on a subject, you can’t pay attention to or comprehend anything.

So what we call multitasking is actually switching between different subjects. When our brain does this switch we lose time and comprehension. Good multi-taskers can switch faster, but they still get their work done in twice the time of a focused person.

So we should just stop multitasking, but that isn’t so easy in our world. With a million things to do, it’s hard not to be constantly switching back and forth. While setting aside a couple hours to exclusively do homework would be ideal, that is often impossible in a student’s schedule.

We depend on multitasking, a strategy that doesn’t even exist to help us. While we might feel productive, we are losing time. It’s disheartening. The world expects the impossible.

Problems also arise because the brain isn’t programmed to learn but rather survive. Our brain doesn’t fight a switch of topic, in fact, it almost encourages it sometimes. If the information we are trying to comprehend is boring or unrelatable, our brains want to switch to something more valuable to our survival.

For those of us who don’t have access to social media or the internet at home, we find it increasingly difficult to come back to campus and have to focus, knowing there’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest at our fingertips.

Medina says our attention spans are actually limited to about 10 minutes. If a professor doesn’t catch your attention in that time, then it’s natural to consider checking your emails. Your attention spotlight is looking for something else important to do. If you’re tired or uncomfortable, that attention span is even shorter.

Being aware of these facts doesn’t actually make it easier to focus. As school begins again, we are thrust back into a world where multitasking feels essential but is actually impossible. While we can, and probably should, force ourselves to stay off the internet during class we may still face attention problems.


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