Eyal Ophir on the Science of Multitasking


11 Responses to “Eyal Ophir on the Science of Multitasking”

  1. snowmentality says:

    Fascinating interview!

    I wonder how these findings compare to what’s known about ADHD. People with ADHD generally have a lot of trouble with task-switching, and can have a lot of trouble filtering out irrelevant input — but are also capable of hyperfocusing on some sufficiently stimulating input/task and ignoring ALL other input, even if it is relevant. Can the heavy media multitaskers have that kind of single-task hyperfocus?

    I also think that media multitasking, looking for the next new piece of interesting information, can definitely be addictive. There is clearly an emotional reward in finding something novel, interesting, and exciting. The internet provides that, but at unpredictable intervals — so you want to keep trying.

  2. phisrow says:

    The results he describes give me the ugly feeling that “multitasking”, at least in the media context, is less about “how these kids are managing to process and control so much information all at once” and more about which kids are incapable of processing and end up being controlled by so much information available all at once…

  3. Jud Valeski says:

    always a fascinating topic. several months ago I tried to scrape the surface of how it’s conceivable that heavy “connectedness” to media, could actually yield *more* meaningful relationships (counter intuitive). http://one.valeski.org/2010/08/ambient-intimacy-humans-machines.html I need to update my thoughts in a fresh blog post, but I do believe there’s something there.

    I like Eyal’s highlight about the passion multitaskers vs. non-multitaskers have about their points of view.

    obviously multitasking (or ability to switch tasks efficiently; that’s a nit in my mind; tomato tomato) can be done incredibly well. consider a fighter pilot managing untold numbers of inputs and data and perceptions, who has to process all of that information very quickly.

    obviously multitasking can be done incredibly horribly also. from my POV, each human brain handles it differently. some thrive on switching tasks frequently, and some do not.

    for me, it all depends on the context and setting. there are times when I enjoy it (usually in the office), and there are times when it drives me up the wall (spending time with the kids who are bouncing all over the place from topic to topic; rapidly).

    there are some tasks that shouldn’t be interrupted. complex brain surgery comes to mind. software engineering. trapeze. etc.

    there are some tasks that can be interrupted regularly and frequently. light conversation with friends. mindless watching of video content.

    there’s no doubt in my mind that heavy task switching impedes deeper efforts to accomplish something though. task switching has a high cost, and nothing is free. if you task switch heavily, it comes out in the wash somewhere (stress, hindered productivity, fatigue).

    I love the comment about us seeking excitement behind the next notification. so true. this is one thing I’m constantly aware of.

  4. Scurra says:

    Riveting piece.  There has been a common claim that our attention span is diminishing these days, but perhaps it’s just that “media multitaskers” are currently in the ascendency so the perception is that they are dominant?

  5. Mark Dow says:

    Figure legend:
    HMM – Heaviest media multitasker group
    LMM – Lightest media multitasker group

  6. snowmentality says:

    Also — try the tests linked in the middle of the interview. Apparently I’m awesome at focusing on red rectangles and ignoring blue ones. But I’m terrible at switching between classifying letters as vowels/consonants and numbers as odd/even. Much worse than the heavy media multitaskers in the study.

    I found it interesting that on the task-switching test, I got mentally tangled up because “vowel” and “odd” were assigned to the same button (and “consonant” and “even” were both assigned to the other button). I think of vowels as being like even numbers, and consonants as being like odd numbers. So not only did I have to switch my focus between numbers and letters, but I also had to break my vowel/even association to press the correct button. I wonder how much my time would change if I retook the test with “vowel” and “even” on the same button. (Others who take the test — are vowel/odd always paired, or do they switch it up?)

    • chgoliz says:

      I had the same responses as you did.

      Perfect score on the red rectangles, but kept having trouble remembering that vowels were on the left but so were odd numbers. That did not compute for me, for whatever reason.

    • Aneurin Price says:

      So far as I’m concerned, consonants and odd numbers are pointy.

  7. greenberger says:

    “We’ve done some early exploratory work on this, and it does seem that heavy media multitaskers place high value on new information, and may be more impulsive and responsive to rewards.”

    No shit! I’m not sure I’m seeing what’s so amazing about this research. It’s pretty obvious if you deal with anyone in their mid-twenties and below that not only are their attention spans shot, but they also lack any ability to focus critically on something, mostly because their shitty attention spans never gave them the mental space to get to the point where they could deconstruct something long enough to really analyze it fully. With art, too- how are you ever going to really appreciate what the artist / musician / writer is doing if you don’t spend quality time with the work? You get hooked on the superficial elements to it and move on to something else before you can really start to appreciate all the hidden craft.

    I know boing boing gets hard for all things technology, and you’re automatically an “out of touch old man luddite” if you don’t praise all technological advances we create, but whatever- the writing is pretty much on the wall. Despite Ophir “not wanting to judge,” his own research judges things quite clearly. If you want to wait for the research to catch up to the obvious before making a decision, go ahead- but in the meantime, kids are growing up in a brave new world of trending topics. My kids aint gonna get no information overload, that’s for darn sure.

  8. asotir talesman says:

    Think back to a deep historical level. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors were on the African veldt, tracking a gazelle to kill it. At the same time they had to be aware of their surroundings (behind them, to either side, and away from the gazelle), just in case a lion was tracking them to kill them.

    Multitasking in this sense is not new at all. And I suspect that what goes on is we set some level of awareness to a ‘monitor this, let me know if anything changes in the pattern that might be cause for concern.’ Studying chemistry while watching TV is like this. We put primary concentration on the chem text, and just monitor TV in the background. TV shows occur in recognizable patterns, most of them, with occasional bursts of ‘something interesting and worth seeing.’ When such a burst occurs, our monitor alerts us, we refocus on the TV, and when that burst of interest passes, return to the chem text.

    We all have different levels of senses (hearing, smell, sight, tactile) and different areas of sensibility (near and far, ahead and behind, so forth). Our ancestors had to manage all these in order both to focus on the task at hand, and to alert us in case of dangerous or important occurrences. 

    The difference comes as noted in the interview, when the media involved are artificial and occur in the same channel, such as two auditory streams. But I imagine our old mechanisms can handle the difference between someone talking off to the right of us, and the background music of the trio on stage.

  9. Daniel says:

    Huh, I got the same exact identification of vowels with even numbers as earlier commenters and my times were really bad for the switching task as well.  My performance on the first task was quite satisfactory though.  I tend to hyperfocus and ignore distractions (or if I can’t ignore them, get very frustrated and anxious) much as Eyal Ophir describes himself in his last response in the interview.

    Repeating the switching task and reminding myself to speed through, I got much better times, though still much worse than both light and heavy multitaskers. OTOH my “additional switching time” beat the crap out of both. I’m not completely sure how to interpret this, except that:
    a) it seems very sensitive to the even/vowel odd/consonant synesthesia we’ve been talking about in this thread — I constantly had to remind myself to invert which buttons to use whenever the switch happened
    b) it also seems very sensitive to how much you prioritize being right over being fast — I’m just generally willing to take more time to make sure I do things right and I think that may be the major factor in the test. (I read fairly slowly but very thoroughly and usually took a lot of time with difficult school assignments.)

    I find that even my very amateurish, short attempts at mindfulness meditation have been very helpful in giving me some control over my attention.  I’d recommend it to anyone who would like to do so as a free, easy, rewarding, effective method.

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