Scholar and harsh critic of multitasking has died

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.


  1. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Yeah, no music or news or tv for me while working either. Certainly nothing with lyrics or speaking.

    And I am sorry to learn of anyone’s death at 55. Much too soon.


  2. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    “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.”

    Is there a difference between instreumental versus vocals?

    When I am writing, I can’t have music with vocals, but instrumental music is OK or actually helpful. And for further wierdness … non-English vocals are also OK. But English lyrics interfere with my ability to think and write in English, because they occupy the same brain space.

    Radio, with the constant chatter of the DJs and ads, is bad.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Like wtf & Tsu above, I brainwork much better with instrumental music playing.

    Probably unlike them, I avoid caffeine almost entirely, and find that listening to music gives me more energy.

  4. M can help you with that. says

    It’s actually easier for me to concentrate with some level of background chatter, as long as it’s the right amount; enough that I don’t automatically pick out individual conversations, not so much that it’s an overwhelming roar. Coffeehouse-level chatter is usually about right. I get more distraction from internal “noise” if my surroundings are too quiet.

    Still can’t multitask effectively, though. I can go from task to task, sure, but only if I can devote a decent chunk of time to each individual task before moving on. Sounds like that’s pretty typical.

  5. left0ver1under says

    So the inability to mutlitask is when two different activities use one part of the brain. Was there any study on people who do multiple instances of the same activity, using the same part? I’m thinking specifically of chess grandmasters. Many are known to play multiple opponents at the same time, and some even do it blindfolded.

    When they do play multiple games simultaneously, they rarely or never play high level opponents. It’s probably their way of filtering, as Nass theorized. The grandmaster can play more on instinct and not need to think as many moves ahead as with higher rated opponents, thus not having to memorize or recall as much information.

  6. mnb0 says

    “except when I am on long drives”
    Driving a car and listening to music at the same time is also a form of multitasking.

  7. Chessanator says

    I still find listening to music helps me work but only in the tedious parts where it helps me work through the grind. A typical workflow for me might be:

    “Time to work. *Music on*. Set out the problem, unpack the definitions. *Music off* Decide on a strategy of attack. *Music on* Write down the strategy and do the easy early parts. Reach key point. *Music off* Think… Think… Insight. Write it down before I lose it. *Music on* Finish the problem.

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    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.

    You mean you don’t have music as a pleasant background noise or a way of keeping you awake any more. There is a difference between listening to music and hearing it in the background. The latter isn’t multitasking- you may actually have your attention drawn to it suddenly and be distracted from the main task you are doing because you start listening to it.
    The English musician/artist Eno has worked on what he calls “ambient music” or “airport music”- music deliberately designed as a background.and not to be listened to.

  9. Mano Singham says

    I don’t have music as background anymore. The problem with (say) the radio is that it is interrupted by voices and thus distracting. If I choose to put on a CD, it is usually something I want to listen to and then that prevents me from doing anything else, unless it is some chore that can be done mindlessly. I suppose I could choose airport music but I don’t see the need to. It is rarely the case that I am forcing myself to be awake. If I feel sleepy, I sleep! If I am in a place where I cannot sleep, it usually means that I can’t have music either.

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