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Multitasking Is Dangerous to Your Health

At first I thought that multitasking was just a bogus concept, on the one hand an obvious truth and on the other an obvious falsehood. If multitasking meant reading a book while listening to music, of course it happened, and had happened long before the term “multitasking” ever came along. But if multitasking meant talking on the phone while doing email, or doing homework while watching TV, or carrying on six chats on your laptop — no way. Those activities exercise the same parts of your brain, and in order to do them you don’t multitask, you switch-task.  And the bad part is that in the switching process you have a warm-up time with the new task before you reach full engagement with it. Doing those things at the same time actually ends up taking longer than doing those things one after the other.

But the dangers of multitasking go beyond inefficiency. Here’s a page from the New York Times entitled “Driven to Distraction.” It presents a series of reports and stories on “the dangers of drivers using cellphones and other electronic devices.” Many people think that talking on the phone and driving are activities that don’t interfere with one another, but the accident statistics don’t lie. One story there notes that Utah has a new state law decreeing that drivers who text and cause fatal accidents are subject to a 15-year prison term and $10,000 fine.

Another story finds that most people are, indeed, aware of the driving-while-tasking problem, but they just can’t help doing it anyway. Take away the freedom to text while driving and people get nervous. I felt it last summer when I left a talk-all-you-want state (Georgia) to live in California for a month, where no handheld devices are allowed.

The health problems don’t apply only to driving. Here’s a study out of Stanford that announces,

Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows

Think you can talk on the phone, send an instant message and read your e-mail all at once? Stanford researchers say even trying may impair your cognitive control.

The primary finding was that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” When people spend months and years trying to multitask, their mental habits follow. Most important, their capacity to filter out distractions and irrelevant items deteriorates. As one of the researchers put it, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy.” The researchers set up experiments that isolated the ability to ignore things that didn’t help subjects complete a problem, and low-multitaskers did well, high-multitaskers poorly.

They also did some memory tests. Result: “The low multitaskers did great,” [researcher] Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”

Finally, they did a test of concentration and the pattern held.

“Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. ‘They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,’ Ophir said. ‘The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.’”

So all those fans of multitasking who claimed that the interactive, multiplicitous Web was altering people’s brains may have been right. Altering them, though, for the worse.

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