I am not going to join the recent chorus of voices crying that multitasking is a bad thing.  It can relieve tedium (listening to lectures while ironing), increase efficiency (knitting while keeping an eye on swimming children), and add to enjoyment (conversing while eating).  What's more, if mothers couldn't multi-task, the whole world might crash to a halt.

Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence—in scientific studies and in my own life—that multitasking can also lead to poor performance on all tasks.  Conducting a business deal via cell phone while driving may increase your productivity, but not if it distracts you from brake lights suddenly appearing on the car ahead.  Fixing dinner while talking to a friend on the telephone may cause you to miss a critical change in her tone of voice—or to burn the meal.

I was inspired a month ago to make Pay Attention this month's resolution.  If there was a specific reason I no longer remember it, but the decision was confirmed when I read The Brain that Changes Itself, a book that showed up in my mailbox after I unexpectedly won it in a contest.  Here are some of my thoughts as I evaluate multitasking, and areas in my life where I need to be more attentive.

I've been a mental multitasker for as long as I can remember—before the word was invented, actually (1966, according to Webster).  My mind is always active in its own world, no matter what else is going on.  Li'l Writer Guy is a significant, but not exclusive, contributor.  The Good:  I do a lot of thinking, and am almost never bored.  The Bad:  I am rarely paying complete attention to what is going on around me.  It requires an almost physical effort, for example. to pay attention to the music in a concert, rather than to let the sound serve as an enjoyable accompaniment for whatever direction my thoughts take me.  My hope for this resolution is not to squelch my active mind, but to discipline it.  I need to be able to distinguish between activities that work well in the periphery of my attention, and those which deserve to be in clear focus.

Anything I want to be able to learn, and remember, is in the latter category.  The Brain that Changes Itself is about the plasticity of the brain, and the ability of even adult brains to change and grow and re-wire themselves.  For a long time we believed that there is a critical period in which the brain is plastic and learns easily, and that after adolescence we are pretty much stuck with the brains we have at that point.  Some skills, such as learning a foreign language with complete fluency, were considered nearly impossible for adults.  Recent studies (and much older studies that had been ignored) have shown, however, that the adult brain is also plastic and can change far more than we thought.  Yes, young children do have a great advantage, in that their brains are always "turned on" for effortless learning in a way that ceases by adolescence.  Adults retain the ability to rewire their brains, but a crucial component of the process for them is paying attention.

Paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.  In numerous experiments [Michael Merzenich] found that lasting changes occurred only when his monkeys paid close attention.  When the animals performed tasks automatically, without paying attention, they changed their brain maps, but the changes did not last.  We often praise "the ability to multitask."  While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps.

This explains many things, including the fact that I am totally hopeless in remembering a route taken, even many times, in a strange city, if I am merely following a leader rather than making the navigational decisions myself.

So how about some concrete examples?  What situations are amenable to multitasking, and what not?

  • I loved nursing my babies, but I must admit that part of the pleasure was that those moments were just about the only time I had to read books, one of the great delights of my life.  I later found out that other mothers spent nursing time gazing into their babies' eyes, fondling their little hands, and otherwise bonding.  I think my babies and I bonded quite well, but I do sometimes wonder what I missed.
  • I've already mentioned concerts, and I was quite successful at not letting my mind wander during a recent series of lovely medieval music recitals.  It helped a lot that the works were short.  Maintaining concentration throughout an entire symphony is still beyond my grasp.
  • Listening to audiobooks or reading during long car rides is a mixed blessing.  It can make the time pass much more pleasantly, especially on an Interstate in the Midwest, but it can also be a loss.  I was a teenager when my family took an amazing cross-country automobile journey—and the scenery I saw the most was inside the large collection of science fiction books my uncle had given me at the start of the trip.
  • One area in which I want to harness, rather than suppress, multitasking is in my projects.  I am quite capable—perhaps too much so—of sustained, concentrated focus and effort when my work is going well.  When I hit a snag, however, I tend to veer off into something else.  For the most part, this is a good thing, and having a full to-do list makes it possible for me to still be productive.  Very often I find that my brain will continue working in the background on the difficulty, and I can return to the first project with the problem solved and something else accomplished as well.  It's much better than spinning my mental wheels.  However ... I know there are times when I should push through the difficulty rather than fleeing from it, and I also know that I sometimes flee to less than useful work, such as checking my e-mail for the fourth time in the past hour.
  • I need to pay more attention to people.  Scanning photographs while IM-ing with a friend is a good use of multitasking, because scanning is otherwise tedious and does not distract from the conversation.  Reading blogs while IM-ing, however, is a poor combination, even though there is time between exchanges to do so, because it leads to me not paying sufficient attention to either.
  • Some areas I think I will not bother to work on:  Movies tend to drive me crazy if I don't have something else to do at the same time.  (I need to learn to knit.)  I suppose I could be a better player if I concentrated 100% on a game, but I rarely find games interesting enough to do so.  (This is why I prefer fast games, and ones in which my lack of attention doesn't hurt a partner.)

This is going to be a difficult resolution.  During our recent trip to Switzerland, I tried forcing myself to pay attention as we travelled from place to place, but found it extremely hard.  Oh well—I learned from The Brain that Changes Itself that another secret to real, lasting change is small, incremental improvements over time.  Each moment spent paying full attention is a victory that enables further progress.


Progress report:

#1  Read More Books  Not so good in April—only three books completed—but that was not unexpected.  I've been working on two more difficult books (The History of the Ancient World and The Chronological Guide to the Bible), and this month also included some travel that left little room for reading outside of the airplane ride—which, I admit, I spent mostly doing puzzles when I was not sleeping. Still, my monthly average is six books, so I'm happy with this one.

#2  Rediscover Feasting  This month focussed more on feasting itself, rather than on the contrast with fasting and ordinary time.  Helped by something I learned from In Tune with the World (to be a link when I review the book), I was able to feast extravagantly during our recent trip to Switzerland, reining in any concerns about either calories or cost.

#3  Learn to Relax  I was much less stressed during our recent travel than I usually am, though I suspect it had more to do with increased travel experience than with anything I've done.  Oh, and the biggest factor—Stephan and Janet did nearly all the work of planning and guiding.  Having watched in jaw-dropping amazement Janet's Alexander Technique class, I think I may have discovered something to help with this resolution—although I haven't found a practitioner closer than an hour and a half away.

#4  Like More Things  No discernable progress here.  I need to find some small steps to take.  Stephan did try to introduce me to a new cheese, but it was not love at first bite and I ran out of time to learn to like it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 7:10 am | Edit
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