“Homo multitaskus” – a multitasking man – does not exist

The human mind is not capable of performing many tasks simultaneously and processing huge amounts of information. According to Dr. Konrad Maj, a psychologist at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, multitasking is myth. The psychologist advises you focus on one activity for 25 minutes, and if you really have to do two things at a time – one of them must be mastered, almost automatic.

“Reading a book and listening to the radio at the same time, talking on the phone and cooking, watching a movie and eating – doing a lot of things at the same time is a widespread phenomenon today. Just like the image of drivers talking on the phone or women doing make-up while driving. Research shows that such behaviour can have catastrophic consequences” – warned Dr. Maj.

The researcher cited a study published in “Human Factor”, the author of which, Dr. Strayer, compared the risk of talking on the phone while driving to driving under influence. According to another study conducted in the UK, talking on the phone increases the likelihood of an accident up to four times. A headset is not a solution – it’s not just about keeping hands on the wheel, bat about engaging in a conversation that triggers the phenomenon called “inattentional blindness”.

Dr. Maj argues that multitasking is just an illusion. The situation is similar with processing multiple data at a time. Even people with outstanding analytical skills are not able to keep up with the development of new technologies. If we watch the news containing additional information bars and images, we will remember much less information. A broadcast that has only the news anchor in the frame will definitely be better.

Researchers from Kansas State University (USA) conducted a series of experiments during which viewers watched CNN news and then answered questions about the content. The first group watched typical headline news, containing additional information bars and images, while the second group watched a newscast with only the presenter. In the first case, the viewers remembered on average 10 percent less information. Problems occurred especially when content belonged to different news categories (for example political news in the bar and weather graphics). The experiment was conducted by Lori Bergen, Tom Grimes and Deborah Potter.

“It is virtually impossible for the brain to focus on information from multiple sources, or to perform several tasks at the same time, because it is not capable of quickly and continuously switching between different modes of operation. Like computers, we cannot handle sudden interruptions and quick restart. On top of that, the time of performing a few tasks at the same time increases greatly and is accompanied by side effects – various types of cognitive errors” – warned Dr. Maj.

He reminded that our attention is very selective, and doing two tasks at the same time – not very effective. The researcher stated that the natural state of mind of a person living in Western culture is dispersed attention, superficial analysis, poor understanding of content. Contemporary person has a constant attention, always wants to be at the centre of events, afraid of missing anything. That is why we work with TV on or check news on Facebook. However, this does not positively affect the quality of work and learning.

Can multitasking be learned? Experiments conducted using neuroimaging by Australian neuropsychologist Paul E. Dux indicate that it cannot. Intense brain training is futile – it’s impossible to do two tasks at the same time if they require attention. The exception is the situation in which we have mastered one of the tasks to the point that we can perform it automatically. Then we can afford to do something else in parallel.

According to the researchers, when we perform a difficult and important task, we want to immediately reward ourselves and make ourselves happy. That is why we get distracted. Pomodoro technique can be used to deal with distraction from what is really important at a given moment. According to it, time resources are divided into 25-minute intervals. During such interval, we focus on a single task and eliminate all distractions. Only after 25 minutes we begin another task, preceded by a brief pause.

We should also accept that a person has limited ability to memorize information. In this situation, it is worth to use the memorizing techniques proposed by psychologists. Example? To memorize a phone number, the 9 digit string is best divided into 3 sets of 3 digits.

“It is better to learn good time management, planning tasks, and to exercise strong will and self-control than to fight with limitations of the brain. Because this struggle, at least when it comes to multitasking, seems doomed to failure” – concluded Dr. Maj.

PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland

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