Friday, March 1, 2013

Make choice not to multitask

By Kelli Breland, Guest Columnist
A middle-aged man in a spotless suit and tie appears on your television screen and concernedly asks a group of children, "so what’s better, doing two things at once or just one?"

"Two," the children gleefully answer, as a smiling young boy proceeds to simultaneously wave his hands and shake his head. Then an edited picture of an iPhone emerges as an unseen narrator points out "doing two things at once is better."

In today’s technology-saturated society, AT&T is among many companies pushing us to multitask by emphasizing the idea that multitasking leads to greater productivity.

They advocate products that can simultaneously perform multiple functions at high speeds. As a result, this innovative technology is becoming more widely used and available.

The problem arises when our phones, laptops, televisions and iPods become a distraction in the academic world, because while our phones can multitask, we cannot.

Contrary to common belief, the human brain cannot process two separate tasks at once. Instead, we switch back and forth at rapid speeds.

Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, "switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not."

What some perceive as efficient multi-tasking, is actually a practice that results in lower productivity.

Imagine your professor is giving a demonstration for a lab you are about to do. As your professor rambles on, a voicemail pops up on your phone, so you slip in a headphone and begin to listen.

While you think you are paying equal attention to the professor and to the voicemail, you are actually switching back and forth between listening to each source, and missing portions of both. When it’s time to start the lab, you suddenly realize you can’t remember the first step, but perhaps you can remember the third or fifth.

In this particular example, multitasking becomes extra difficult because two similar tasks are competing for usage of the same parts of the brain. Both tasks involve incoming auditory information, so the corresponding section of the brain, the temporal lobe, cannot process both tasks at once.

While the idea that we can only focus on one thing at a time may seem bleak, there is good news. Because our brains have to choose between one task or another, we have developed the ability to prioritize tasks and tune out distractions.

This is a result of another part of our brain, the frontal lobe, which has what Daniel Weissman, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, refers to as "the executive." This part of the brain decides which tasks are important.

So when you’re studying for tomorrow’s test and your roommate’s TV show is blaring loudly, you can choose to focus your attention on your homework and "the executive" will tell the rest of your brain to ignore the distraction.

Just don’t decide the TV is equally important. Make the choice to set technology aside from your academics, and you won’t waste your time switching back and forth between the two, missing parts of each.

By separating your tasks instead of attempting to multitask, you’ll get more out of your studying, texting, emailing, social networking and TV entertainment.

You have the ability to ignore distractions, but it’s your own choice. When it’s time to pick up the pencil, it’s time to put down the phone.