I was sorry to learn that Stanford professor Clifford Nass died unexpectedly this week at the age of just 55. He studied the ways in which technology and human beings interacted.
Over two years ago, I wrote about one aspect of his work that I had come across. This was when he showed that people who tried to multitask were terrible at it but yet had this self-image that they were doing it well and were saving time and being more efficient. They thought they were focused on each of the many tasks they were doing but instead “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them…. We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society. We could essentially be dumbing down the world.”
I summarized the main ideas of his work in that earlier post.
In an interview with the PBS program Frontline, lead researcher Clifford Nass said that it is possible to multitask certain things if those require different parts of the brain. For example, one might be able to cook and keep an eye on the children, or do gardening while listening to music or drive while talking. But classical psychology says that when it comes to doing more than one task that requires similar cognitive abilities, the brain simply cannot do that. What people do is try to rapidly switch their attention from one task to the next.
Nass and his colleagues hypothesized that to carry out successful multitasking of this latter sort required three distinct skills. One is the ability to filter, to detect irrelevancy, to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not important. The second is the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next. The third is a greater ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.
The researchers expected to find that people who were ‘high multitaskers’, i.e., people who tend to do multiple things, would be very good at least in one of those areas when compared to the ‘low multitaskers’, i.e., people like me who have to do things sequentially. What they were surprised to find was that the high multitaskers were terrible in all three areas.
In an NPR story, he was quoted about the costs of this belief in the efficacy of multitasking.
To anyone who claims they’re able to multitask, to concentrate on multiple things at once while still thinking creatively and using their memory, Nass had a ready response.
“They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking,” he told Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, citing a raft of scientific research. In Nass’s view, people who say they’re good at multitasking because they do it all the time are like smokers who say they’ve always smoked — so it can’t be bad for them.
“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted,” Nass said. “They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even – they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
I found his work influential and stopped trying to multitask altogether, which was not hard since I knew I was terrible at it. The biggest benefit was that I stopped feeling guilty that I should be doing more..
One interesting thing is listening to music. When I was young, I used to have music in the background when I was reading or writing. I now cannot do that, because each distracts from the other. I don’t know if I didn’t realize this when I was younger or just didn’t care. When I am writing, I find that I cannot listen to the radio anymore nor can I work in places where there is a lot of ambient activity, say in a coffee shop, even if that activity has nothing to do with me and I should be able to ignore it.
As a result of my not attempting to multitask, I don’t listen to music nearly as much now, except when I am on long drives, which is a pity, but unavoidable unless I decide to read and write less.