[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.

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.


8 thoughts on “Multi-whating?

  1. Pingback: Patricia Greenfield on Media, Multitasking & Education « Neurons Firing

  2. Ken Allan

    Kia ora Laurie

    a propo what this is all about, Will Thalheimer wrote a great post pointing to an article by Rebecca clay.

    If you haven’t already found it, do check it out – Clay’s article makes interesting reading.

    Catchya later

  3. synapsesensations Post author

    HI Ken,

    I enjoyed your comments on multitasking. You made me think of our older son, a native English speaker who went to Japan four years ago to learn Japanese, became fluent, attended Japanese university, and then did interpreting – for Japanese tour guides giving back country snowboarding and skiing tours to English speaking customers, and during the G8 protests in Hokkaido. To me the ability to interpret seems like multitasking, but perhaps it is really doing one activity that has become linked and to which the brain has become trained, such as you suggest at the end of your comment.

    There do seem to be activities, as you note, where you can train your brain to do more than one task, the tasks are related, and both are done well. However, multitasking in the more generalized sense, such as talking on a cell phone while driving, requires doing two unrelated activities, where studies have shown that the outcome can be deadly.

    What I wonder about multitasking is if slowing down just a tad to do something well before moving on to the next thing (as opposed to trying to do them both simultaneously) might make the process more enjoyable, possibly provide a moment’s reflection, and in the long run prove more brain and consolidation friendly.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful thinking!

  4. Ken Allan

    Kia ora Laurie!

    I have a conservative point of view about multi-tasking. I have my own anecdotal evidence too – I don’t follow Marc Prensky, and I can’t multi-task as far as I know.

    Having said that, there are some activities that can certainly appear to mimic multi-tasking and I can do some of these. But these tasks are only accomplished with practice and familiarity.

    Classroom teachers tend to attempt to multi-task most of the time, which is one good reason perhaps why burn-out is prevalent among teachers, and why many are in a perpetual state of exhaustion.

    I understand that such activity draws on the executive function of the brain.”When people juggle several tasks simultaneously, they use so-called executive control processes, which prioritize different tasks and assign cognitive resources to them.” – Scientific American.

    Musicians appear to multi-task and many are very good at it. It’s one of the skills that’s difficult to accomplish at first when playing piano or guitar or any other instrument where it is possible to play two or more lines of music simultaneously.

    Singers who accompany themselves on a musical instrument likewise have to multi-task or so it would seem. These are skills that, once acquired, appear to come naturally to the performer.

    More closely related multi-tasking are skills such as sight-reading music, which for a trained musician is no more difficult than it is for someone to read out loud from a book. Transposing to another key while that musician is also sight-reading would be closer to a real multi-tasking activity, as would for the reader of English literature who was also directly translating it audibly into French, for example).

    Concert conductors acquire supreme talents in this field, and have acquired the skill to follow a score with several lines of music, all for different instruments, playing different parts of a symphony or concerto.

    So-called multi-tasking is probably able to be acquired, with a lot of practice, with closely related tasks. My own feeling on this is that the brain actually treats the combination as one activity, and it is only through (much) practice that this can be accomplished.

    I’d be interested in other opinion on this.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  5. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi Alonzo,

    What an interesting idea to play music while writing the rough draft; I often self-edit while composing my first draft, and have to keep telling myself to stop doing that! I am going to try your suggestion on my next post and see how it goes.


  6. Alonzo

    Great post, very informative. It really is impossible to truly multitask – no matter what the proponents say. And it only gets worse the older you get!

    In certain situations, like writing a rough draft, listening to music can help keep the “critic” in your head from interfering with getting the words on the page. I use this frequently, but always have to turn the music off when I revise, because then I NEED the critic.

  7. synapsesensations Post author

    Reply that I left on referenced above:

    Many thanks for your comment on my post, and for the links above. I quite enjoyed reading your post, and found myself nodding in agreement and smiling in recognition of familiar behaviors (of mine, my children’s, and my students).

    I heard a WONDERFUL presentation on the teen brain by Frances Jensen (Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School professor) at the April, 2008, Learning & the Brain conference. Jensen created, with her Harvard colleague David Urion, “Teen Brain 101″ as “a short course for teens, their parents and teachers”. You can see an interview with her here:

    Anyway, I suspect she might have current info on teens and multitasking, and might be an excellent resource, in general. (I wish her “course” was available on DVD for sharing!)


  8. Shaping Youth

    Whoa…this is so fortuitous, as I just updated my own post on multitasking teens where the Media Lab at Temple Univ. has created a ‘game’ to literally SHOW kids how hard it is to refrain from continuous divided attention…

    Here’s my post on it, and my note in the comments updating only seconds ago!

    Clearly, I’ve been ‘sucked in’ to the phenom in many ways, (80 tabs open in Firefox, so I don’t ‘forget’ to record a piece of knowledge in my brain filter/’to do’ list) and what is readily apparent to me is how seamlessly I’ve veered in that direction over the past year working with youth despite knowing full well that my memory can’t handle that much data firing at once no matter HOW compelling.

    Like you, I turn off the music when I’m writing the blog, as I get to toe-tapping as well…and though I ‘can’ over-ride my physical inclination, just as you did, I can literally FEEL the urge to focus, and have tested it with my own writing…I arrived at the fact that I can only listen to instrumental music that I DON’T know at all to write without errors…weird.

    Kinda makes you wonder about all of the ipod-toting hospital help, eh? 😉

    That said, I’ve heard MANY kids say they can ONLY do their homework with ipods on…and that music or gum chewing or whatever helps soothe them during test-taking and such…so it would be interesting to hear more from the ‘digital natives’ beyond the anecdotal. Know of any studies going on currently with this?

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