As I type this, there's a steady stream of Twitter updates popping up on my desktop. I'm steaming fish for dinner, Jeopardy is playing on the TV and my husband and I are chatting.
All day I've been switching between several different jobs and checking Facebook. And sometimes, I proofread while conducting an interview. I try to avoid that because it's rude, but, hey, sometimes you gotta meet a deadline or 12. I guess it's a good thing I don't drive.
Multi-tasking is just the way we live these days. We do five or six things at the same time, both because we need to and because we want to. But what is this doing to our brains?
What the experts say
"Almost every published psychology study to my knowledge shows that our task performance decreases when we multi-task. Multi-tasking can even impair cognitive functions and can be life-threatening, such as while driving. So, why are we multi-tasking more and more when it's a really bad thing to do? Data suggests that it makes us feel good. Multi-tasking is never consciously driven by emotional needs, like feeling relaxed or finding fun things to do, but it does gratify those needs. In one study, we wondered if we could improve multitasking performance. We found that people's perception about how well they did didn't match up with how they actually performed. People are overconfident about their capabilities."
ZHENG JOYCE WANG, assistant professor, Ohio State University School of Communication, Columbus
"The more worrisome problem is that there are long-term consequences for thinking. Those who chronically multi-task are less able to think well in a number of different domains, even when they're not multi-tasking. They have difficulty focusing, distinguishing between the relevant and the irrelevant, and managing their short-term memory.
The brain gets into the habit of not thinking deeply, but rather on surface level. Executive control functions, which guide how we think, become weakened, leaving people more impulsive and less able to cope in social situations. Your brain, in a sense, gives up on thinking hard. If you habitually multi-task, when you try to focus, you can't. We are doing brain scans to see if multi-tasking rewires the brain. Our guess is that the change happens in the prefrontal cortex. There are lots of reasons to believe this doesn't have an upside."
CLIFFORD NASS, professor of communication, Stanford University, Stanford, California
"My study didn't draw a conclusion about the relationship between media multi-tasking and cognitive abilities. But it provided an intriguing possibility: that abundant experience in media multi-tasking can affect how your attention is allocated. Media multi-taskers may be better at detecting and utilizing unexpected but useful information."
KELVIN LUI, master of philosophy student, Perception & Experience Lab, department of psychology, Chinese University of Hong Kong
"Some people believe that you can do multiple things in parallel, but for the most part, that's simply not true. People switch their attention between things. So, how can you do it in a relatively healthy way? We could probably do a better job if we let go of whatever we were last paying attention to. When we try to do five things at once, we get tense. So we could become more relaxed. One recent study based on the work of Zen teacher Darlene Cohen gave people an intensive multi-tasking test. Then we gave them eight weeks of training. One group got mindfulness meditation training, one body relaxation and the third no help at all. At the end of the eight weeks, we found that the meditators were less stressed. The people in the control group showed none of those improvements, and one out of three in the relaxation group showed better memory."
DAVID LEVY, professor, Information School at the University of Washington, Seattle