samedi 16 août 2014

Multitasking - Part 2

I have come across a really interesting article on multitasking (and many other things related to digital age).

The article: - Section on MultiTasking Vs. 'Hopping' or Task Switching. In this text, the authors discuss the differences between Multitasking and Hoping (switching between tasks). Unfortunately, some aspects of the discussion  are not detailed enough and may lead one to believe that the situation is better than it actually is.

For example, towards the end of the section, the author suggests that there is not enough research to clearly conclude that multitasking impairs understanding. This is probably the biggest message in the section! While it is totally true, let us not jump to a conclusion that there is no negative impact in multitasking.

The text suggests that "reading while listing to music" is an example of multitasking. In reality, it is not. If we turn to the research on human development especially on processing of reading and auditory information, we will find that reading is actually a skill directly associated with auditory sections of the brain. Some even suggest that good readers "imagine" sound in their head in order to improve processing of information. Moreover, both reading and listening to songs (with words) requires the same sections of the brain to work on executive and decoding functions.

In short, we cannot multitask as long as the tasks in question require the same section(s) of the brain to process or react. Just imagine a highway with toll payment section on it. The toll is hundreds of lines wide but each line is specifically associated with a particular model/brand of car. Each car has to, absolutely, use the appropriate toll booth. Moreover, there is a processing restriction: at the same instance no more than 7 cars can pay. Therefore, two cars of the same brand/model cannot cross the toll at the same time but a few different model(s)/brand(s) of cars can. While this analogy is limited, it still demonstrates the basic principle: the brain simply cannot keep alive more than 5-7 chunks of info at the same time. The same type or form of information cannot be processed at the same time. While the brain works much faster than any toll on the road can, it has other restrictions that our special toll does not: it cannot process more than one higher level task. That means that, according to a Revised Bloom's Taxonomy by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001), many tasks at

  • Level IV - Analyze
    • analyze
    • categorize
    • classify
    • compare
    • infer
    • etc.
  • Level V - Evaluate
    • appraise
    • judge
    • compare
    • criticize
    • defend
  • Level VI - Create(Synthesis)
    • choose
    • combine
    • create
    • design
    • construct
    • hypothesize
    • etc.
cannot be done at the same time. 

So what? Well, this goes much farther than we could initially think. If we come back to our early example of reading, research demonstrates that an effective reader will naturally analyze, evaluate and hypothesize in the process of reading a paragraph or section. 

If this hypothetical reader is also doing something else requiring the same section(s) of the brain, the reader will be Hopping. If we push it a bit farther and assume that the stream of information(from one of the sources) is continuous and cannot be stopped: the reader will loose information! However, in most cases, we can stop reading and restart again at our ease. So what is the problem? Well the problem is that the short memory and executive function will be taxed much more: before Hopping the info on the text will have to be fully processed and stored in long term memory. Before, the reader can come back to reading and restart, the information will have to be retrieved and reprocessed again. Considering that at all stages short time memory is bound to loose some information, that the executive function and many other sections of the brain have to work more, the understanding will not be the same. Of course, the essentials will probably be understood, but the depth of the text and the detailed appreciation of the language and vocabulary will be lost (at least partially).

So where is the proof? Remember the phrase that we have started with? Unfortunately, the research that specifically targets our ability to multitask is new and there is simply not enough information to build a sufficient body of knowledge in order to make a sound conclusion. That does not mean that we do not have an idea on what should happen. For instance, according to the most recent ideas in neurology, we know that the brain can rewire itself and restore some of the lost or initially impaired function. So why not multitasking? Why not imagine that we are getting better at Hopping to a point of not loosing any information? One of the hypotheses suggest that such a major rewiring of the brain cannot be accounted by a mere principle of brain elasticity. Others, like Prensky think that new generations are different. However, we simply do not know.

The jury on the multitasking may have yet to come to a conclusion, but one thing remains the same: as long as we consider that our brain has not evolved in the pas thousand years, multitasking, as a limited and extremely taxing on our brain activity, will have a noticeable impact on higher level cognitive functions of the human.

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