Monday, January 18, 2010

Multitasking Has Its Detractors

Among the many wonders of the significant technological shift in the 1990s was the idea that we could “save time.” Having instant access to phones, email and information, many declared, would give us more time to do the “important things.” Some even suggested it was better for your brain!

Now that technology has taken us to a place never before known (e.g., 74% of Americans use the internet, over 80% own or use cell phones), science is taking a closer look at what effects multitasking (or task switching) has on the human brain and life in general. A study in New York City revealed that over 89% of those in the city use cell phones.

This past Sunday’s New York Times (January 17, 2010) reported on just how risky it is to walk and use your cell phone at the same time. The article quotes a study at Ohio State University that showed a doubling of emergency room visits resulting from walking and simultaneously talking on the cell phone in 2008 over 2007, which also doubled over 2006. The study suggests the actual numbers of incidents is higher than the reported 1000 emergency room visits because many people may not have suffered injuries requiring treatment. Over half the injuries reported happened among those between the ages of 16 and 20. One quarter of injuries happened to people 41 to 60 years old.

And we know all too well the dangers of cell phone use while driving as more and more states limit and outlaw cell phones while behind the wheel.

A significant report published in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology, in 2008 uncovered the myth of multitasking, summarizing a number of studies conducted since 2000. One of the more entertaining, but alarming quotes in the article is attributed to a study done at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, funded by Hewlett-Packard on email and cell phone use in the workplace. “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” Go figure! I was impressed with the range of research on multitasking and that most of it underscores the downsides.

I worked with someone once who decried the focus on multitasking that had “taken over reason,” she claimed. “If I need to work on two things at once, I won’t do either of them well. It’s your choice,” she said to me, her boss at the time. I guess now she was right!

Do your experiences with multitasking support the detractors or the supporters? Post your thoughts in a comment below.


Angie said...

Hi Kathryn, really like your article on multitasking. I personally am against 90% of the time :) Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down.

Kathryn Arbour said...

Thanks for commenting. I've been trying to focus on one thing at a time and it feels good for a change. Kathryn