Wednesday 13 December 2017

The truth is we can't multitask and digital distractions only add to our brain drain

The truth is we cannot multitask - and in one case the consequences were fatal. Stock image
The truth is we cannot multitask - and in one case the consequences were fatal. Stock image

Eoin Whelan

Multitasking can kill you. Consider the case of 61-year-old Mary Milne, who died in a Dallas hospital in 2011 during what was supposed to be a routine operation to correct her irregular heartbeat. The subsequent investigation revealed the attending anaesthesiologist was distracted - constantly switching attention between his smartphone and the surgery he failed to notice the patient's low blood-oxygen levels for 15 to 20 minutes.

The truth is we cannot multitask. Our brains have a limited capacity for storing real-time information, meaning a limit to how many tasks we can do at once. We might be able to focus 100pc on reading a book. But throwing your smartphone into the mix does not mean you can split your attention 50-50. It's more like 40-40, with 20pc of your cognitive power snatched by the brain's extra energy requirements in multitasking mode.

Still believe you can multitask? Here's a simple experiment to prove you wrong. Think of your favourite chocolate and really imagine its glorious silky taste as you bite off one chunk after another. Keep imagining that taste while at the same time, add 37 to 56. You can't do it. You can switch back and forth really quickly, but you can't think about both things at the exact same time.

While we are not very good at multitasking, we still try to do it every waking moment. We carry around in our pockets and purses the finest interruption machine ever created. Text messages, social media alerts, pop-ups, emails, and phone calls all drain attention away from the task we want to focus on - family meal time, a conversation with a friend, or a work assignment. Studies show people check their mobile phones up to 150 times a day, or every six to seven minutes they are awake. Once interrupted, it can take as much as 30 minutes for the brain to re-engage fully with the original goal. Think about that the next time you sneakily check your phone under the table during a business meeting. You may be present, but not cognitively engaged.

To some extent, we can't help ourselves. Seeking out interruptions is what we are hardwired to do. Such a belief has recently gained credence amongst neuroscientists and psychologists alike. In our Neanderthal days, it served us well to stop foraging and immediately attend to the sudden sound off yonder. After all, it could be a predator, or even a better bounty of food. Evolution kindly bestowed upon us the cognitive ability to effectively gauge the utility of a small number of interruptions. But we are now abusing Mother Nature's gift with our digital obsessions.

My colleagues and I have conducted a number of studies into the causes and consequences of online media multitasking. What we have discovered is a key driving force behind the incessant switching afforded by smartphones, tablets, and laptops is the fear of missing out (Fomo), the pervasive apprehension others might be having rewarding experiences from which the person is absent.

People burdened with Fomo tend to exhibit online hyperactivity, which our studies, and many others, show is associated with deleterious consequences, from poor information retention, to fatigue, to stress, to work/family conflict. Interestingly, people who believe they are good at multitasking are actually the most likely to be overwhelmed by our digitally-saturated culture. They are deluded into believing the execution of a numerous tasks simultaneously will help them get more done, but those advantages never materialise.

So how do we regain our focus and stop the digital distraction? That's going to be difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, the emotional gratification we receive when multitasking overrides any indicators of inefficiency. Switching attention to the ping that just went off in your phone triggers the brain's activation of dopamine - and we crave whatever triggers dopamine.

To your brain, that ping could have important implications for your life, and dopamine is your reward for checking it out. We all know the solution, simply remove any potential distractions when you need to focus on a demanding task. But how many of us put our phones away when we are supposed to be working?

Secondly, even if you decide to curb your online activity, being in the proximity of a digital multitasker will pose a significant distraction to you. In a clever experiment, researchers in Canada's McMaster University planted laptop-wielding accomplices between some students and the instructor in a lecture hall. Students who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored significantly lower on a test compared to those who were not. So it seems an apt analogy to compare the discombobulating effects of modern technology to second-hand smoke.

Taking this study on board, in my lectures, I firstly try to dissuade students from using their devices in class, but if they insist, they have to move to the back rows, out of the line of slight of their peers.

Thirdly, modern media is professionally designed to distract us. Attention has become the most valuable commodity in the online world. So the more you click, click, click, the more profit some new media company is making - and that can amount to billions. Clickbait websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy even use crafty algorithms to target users with customised headlines proven to abduct their attention. In the battle to regain our concentration, we are up against billion- dollar companies whose armies of very smart programmers and psychologists are very focused on distracting us.

Wouldn't it be great if our digital devices could actually curb our multitasking desires by recognising when we are cognitively engaged on an important task and automatically prevent any interruptions until we were finished?

Known as neuroadaptive systems, this technology is in its embryonic stages but its ubiquity is imminent.

When a person is in focused state, or a passive or stressed state for that matter, they give off certain neurophysiological signals through facial gestures, eye movements, respiratory rhythm, and even hand movements.

Wearable devices and apps can now detect these subtle changes (try out the AffdexMe app) and it's only a matter of time before commercially-available hardware and software uses this data to tailor our environment to support our mental state.

While neuroadaptive systems may assist us in the future, for now, don't be afraid to speak up if you notice your health professional attempting to multitask while you are in their care.

Dr Eoin Whelan is a lecturer in business information systems at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway

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