[Updated January 19 and May 10 with some additions. Also, Happy Birthday a week and a day ago to Fred!]
I don’t usually listen to music while writing or reading, as the music distracts me. If there are words, I want to sing along, and no matter what, I tap my toes or swing my legs, and eventually my whole body gets into the act.
It is possible to retrain my brain so that I can focus on writing or reading while listening to music. However, then I would be multitasking, and research has led to the conclusion that the brain does not – and cannot – multitask.
(As an experiment, I’ve been listening to some wonderful recently-gifted-to-me music and writing this at the same time. However, the experiment doesn’t necessarily prove I can successfully multitask. It simply shows that with strong intent to concentrate, I can write while “turning off” my normal physical response to listening to music.)
NPR’s thirty minute Talk of the Nation, October 2008, is all about Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain. The gist of the conversation is that while you can do more than one thing at a time, none of them are done well. With that said, it seems that younger folks who are growing up with technology (the digital natives, as coined by Marc Prensky), and who do many things at once while using that technology, are perhaps changing their brains as they engage in successful multitasking. Apparently, playing certain types of video games promote the ability to multitask within the brain. Of course, because neuroplasticity is a feature of our brains, the rest of us can also train our brains to become better at multitasking. However, regardless of the age of the person attempting to multitask, switching between two dissimilar tasks will be more successful than switching between two similar tasks, although this is influenced by “how hard and how confusable” the tasks are.
(More on my experiment – last night the music was playing while I wrote the above paragraph. Rereading it this morning, there was a glaring mistake in the last sentence, which I have since remedied. And updated on January 19 – I decided that my memory of the NPR report was inaccurate, so I went back and listened to the NPR report again and, sure enough, I had it right the first time, and wrote it wrong the second time. Sure proves John Medina’s points made below!)
The above conversation is part of an NPR series about multitasking. Please note that “brain research suggests cell phones and driving are a dangerous mix, even with a hands-free device.” If you drive and talk on a cell phone, please listen to the NPR 8:55 minute conversation below on Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving.
- Multitasking In The Car: Just Like Drunken Driving, 2008
- Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again, 2008
- Multitasking Teens May Be Muddling Their Brains
- Think You Can Be Top Gun?
- How Multitasking Affects Human Learning
John Medina, author of brain rules, states in Rule #4:
We don’t pay attention to boring things.
It turns out that multitasking simply does not help our brains to pay attention. You can read more about what Medina has to say on this topic in his blog article The brain cannot multitask. In particular, Medina states that “The best you can say is that people who appear to be good at multitasking actually have good working memories, capable of paying attention to several inputs one at a time.” He goes on to say that there is a consequence to multitasking, and this is proved by my editing discovery this morning.
“Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”
(By the way, I turned off the music in order to listen to the NPR interviews and read the articles, but the music is back on now for the rest of this post.)
Here are three additional views on multitasking.
- How the brain limits our ability to multitask, Neurophilosophy – March 2007
- Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users: Your brain on multitasking, 2005
- Multitasking Can Make You Lose … Um … Focus, New York Times – October 2008