(originally posted at amaral-lab.org)
At this present moment, as I am writing this, I am among the most connected human beings in all of history. If you wanted to, you could send me a Facebook message, email me, send me a Gchat message (all of which I get both on my laptop and my phone), text me, call me, or any combination of the above, and I can instantly see it. In the same vein, I can click over to Google and have access to almost any information I want, watch (legally or illegally) any movie or show that happens to strike me, and reach out and get connected to strangers from all around the world. I am truly a new breed of super-connected, wired human, and I am completely typical of my generation.
The problem is, science is starting to show that this is not an entirely good thing. In fact, it might be fundamentally changing the way we think and learn. Recently I watched a Frontline documentary call Digital Nation (highly recommended) which discussed these very matters. It spoke of how children and teenagers are almost never doing just one thing at a time anymore. They are doing homework at the same time as messaging their friends, watching a Youtube video, downloading music, and more. They don’t write essays; they write a series of paragraphs. They don’t read books; they find summaries and synopses online. None of this was particularly surprising to me, and I’ve been guilty of more than a few of the same things. What did surprise me was just how sure all of these students were of their ability to multitask and to be good at all the tasks they’re doing.
Researchers have demonstrated that, in fact, the opposite is true. A recent article in PNAS (Eyal Ophir et al. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. PNAS. 106 (37): 15583-7, 2009) shows that the heaviest multitaskers are worse than light multitaskers at filtering out irrelevant stimuli when trying to attend to multiple tasks at once and are slower to switch between tasks, both of which affect their performance negatively. Therefore, a person who chronically multitasks is actually worse at multitasking than someone who never multitasks, a finding with very troubling implications for the students today who grew up multitasking.
Why might this be? Shouldn’t someone who practices at something get better at it? My own opinion is that multitaskers are not actively controlling switching among their tasks in any productive fashion. They have in fact developed an addiction to stimuli and are extremely receptive to any distraction. Focusing on any one thing for a length of time invokes a sense of boredom or that they are missing out on something, that they could or should be doing something else at the same time. The only way to stop this feeling is to have constant stimulation. This is probably why most movie trailers nowadays are just a series of 1-second, high-voltage clips set to extremely emotional music – an absolute buffet of stimulation.
Does this mean that all of our attention spans are getting shorter? Can I write a paragraph without feeling the need to check Facebook or my email? Can I have a random question pop in my head without immediately reaching for my smartphone to look it up? Maybe it’s not a good thing that now it’s totally acceptable to be socializing with one friend in person and then start texting another one, mid-sentence sometimes. Maybe it’s not wise to allow students to be on their laptops during class, surfing the internet and Facebooking while they’re supposed to be absorbing new information and knowledge.
There is now a disconnect between what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about. We’re always somewhere else, jacked into everything and yet fully connected with nothing. I worry that it’s affected our ability to formulate complex thought, which requires a high level of focus and absorption. If we try to do everything at once, if we’re constantly being interrupted by our phones, our email, and even our own need for new stimulation, can we ever do any one thing truly well anymore? Maybe it’s enough to just be aware of our own tendency to distract ourselves and to make an active effort to focus and not let irrelevant stimuli in. After all, this was a rather long blog entry. Ask yourself: how many times did you stop reading this to check on Facebook or your email? Be honest.