Do multitaskers spread their attention too thin?
Sunday, September 19, 2004
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
To do nothing at all but drive while driving seems like a Buddhist discipline these days. For a restless people chased by time and anxiety, the easiest of ways to live is just too hard.
So instead of doing just one thing at a time, we do two (drive and talk on the cell phone, maybe) or three, or even four or five (drive, eat, smoke, listen to music and talk on the phone).
It's called multitasking, a term that was born of the computer age and a trait that has become so hard-wired into the way we live, work and play, we hardly notice when we're doing it.
But some -- state legislatures, scientists who study brain function and ethicists who worry about quality of life issues -- are taking notice. And many question what they see.
California last week became the latest state to limit cell-phone use in vehicles, making it illegal to talk on one while driving a bus. New York state and Washington, D.C., prohibit drivers' use of hand-held phones, and two bills in Harrisburg propose restrictions in school zones and school buses. In June, New Jersey lawmakers went for broke, banning not only cell-phone use by drivers but making lawbreakers out of drivers who sneak a hand to the radio or the cup holder.
The American International Automobile Dealers association cites a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that estimates cell-phone use contributed to 292,000 accidents from 1997 to 2002.
On a recent visit to Pittsburgh from New Jersey, Natalie Samaha, 26, described what cured her of cell-phone use while driving: "I was almost in an accident. My boyfriend and I were on the phone arguing and I was concentrating on that and," she clapped her hands as if one were her car, "almost got hit."
She said she still multitasks outside the car to beat time: "My friends call me Roadrunner. They sit and eat their lunch quietly, but I do everything while I'm eating. I think it's a personality thing, plus all the pressure."
The pressure? What pressure?
"It seems like the world is so fast-paced that if you don't multitask, you fall behind," said Michael Cooney, 27, a bank employee from Forest Hills who watches TV while paying bills, works on a computer while on the phone and eats dinner reading. "I seem to make it through life OK that way."
But many researchers warn that multitasking undermines our best efforts. At Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Marcel Just, director of the center and professor of psychology, has been studying how multitasking affects brain activity.
He currently is comparing a brain driving; a brain driving and having to pick lanes; and a brain driving, navigating and answering questions.
From inside an MRI machine at Carnegie Mellon, research assistant Sarah Berson simulates being one of his subjects: She drives using a hand-held device. Her sandaled feet are still, but on the computer screen, she is changing lanes at breakneck speed, veering dangerously along a curvy road.
One might assume that if Berson had to concentrate only on driving, she would drive better. And one would be right: When trying to focus on several tasks, the brain does each less well than when it hones in on one, Just said. In other words, the brain is limited in how much attention it can distribute.
In one study, he asked 18 right-handed subjects to decide whether two rotating 3-D objects were the same while listening to sentences. The result was that the listening exercise reduced the brain's processing of the objects by 28 percent and the brain's synthesis of the sentences was reduced by 50 percent in the effort to process the shapes.
A just-published study at Vanderbuilt University found that, when presented with a stream of images and asked to recall them later, people can remember only three or four.
Just doesn't condemn multitasking as another cultural bad habit, however. He's a multitasker himself. "There are some really great mental jugglers out there," Just said. But there's a time and a place, he added: "I can speed read but I don't speed read poetry or love letters. Right now, technology is providing a luxury of information. It doesn't mean you have to eat more of it."
Humans naturally stop multitasking when they have to, he added: "When people listen to books on tape in a car, I'm sure they turn it off in heavy traffic."
Some people work at turning up the volume.
Dana Takach is trying to be a better multitasker. In past jobs, she would moonlight as a cocktail waitress and bartender because "two jobs wasn't enough." Now, her job is like three in one.
Takach, 36, of Pleasant Hills, is what co-workers call "the first line of defense," at the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Right through the double glass entrance doors she sits, ringed by a desk with notes and reminders tacked to it, a phone apparatus that looks like it belongs in a cockpit and people coming and going at times as if at a train station.
It is typical for her to be on the phone, with another line or two ringing, when a deliveryman needs her to sign for a package. She fields all calls, keeps track of council member status, slots the mail, orders supplies, tends to the copier, hangs visitors' coats, gets them water, handles employee schedules, plans for and sets up company functions, decorates the lobby at Christmas and 15 other things.
Her job is about being distracted.
"A lot of people will want 10 things at once," she said, "and I feel I have to keep a finger on everything. I haven't lost it yet, but, well, to be quite honest, there have been a couple times when I went back there," she points at a door, "and kind of screamed."
Some people's jobs require mental juggling, but so many of us multitask when we don't have to. It's just too compelling.
David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington, says the rush of information and the speed it has fueled was addictive: "It's a high to think you're on top of it all, and sometimes you are. Look at how rapidly these technologies have gotten such a strong claim on us. The Internet is not even 15 years old," the cell phone just a few years older.
"We jump on our cell phones when they ring. And why am I checking my e-mail all the time? Because there could be something wonderful. These things point to very deep-rooted needs in us."
But at what cost? he asks: "It seems we're losing the capacity for that slow, concentrated attending to things."
Levy orchestrated a conference in May for people from many fields to discuss quality of life issues in light of our zeal for speed and multiplicity. He says the technology "high" people strive for indicates a life out of balance, just as the environmental movement in the late-60s pointed to planetary distress. Unlike the environmental movement, he said, "maybe we can catch this early."
Of a similar mind is John de Graaf, national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, a program of Cornell University's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy. This movement, with 12,000 members, emphasizes voluntary simplicity, he said: "Spend less, work less, keep out of debt, slow down, know that the best things in life aren't things."
He says multitasking is a symptom of a ruthless marketplace, that it causes unnecessary stress, anxiety and hyperactivity disorders that are affecting more adults. People are working more hours than they should because of downsizing and doing more than one person's work, he says. It carries over at home, where families "overschedule their time to the max," without building in time to relax.
"It's pop-up everything," he said, "and it's theft of our time. There's a high cost in thinking that the 'good life' is really a good life."