Friday, 26 April 2013


Petting the Cushion and Fluffing the dog!

     So, there are many of us who are hugely proud of our ability to do several things at the same time. Maybe your mother can rattle off a train-long, multi-syllable mantra which twists and turns dramatically as she prepares breakfast for everyone and supervises the maid! A pilot has to monitor air traffic information, radio signals as well as the actual piloting! A surgeon needs to pay attention to the status of the patient, execute critical procedures and manage his surgical team, all at once! 
     Well, all these are instances usually thought to be acts of multi-tasking, i.e., performing different tasks that demand attention in a given time period. The assumption that we can split our attention so super-humanly and emerge as effective performers makes us feel confident. On the flip side, it is an inaccurate assumption because research in the field now reveals that humans are not capable of simultaneously engaging in different tasks but can shift attention from one task to another so quickly that it appears to be happening all at the same time!

     In an interesting study by Daniel Weissman at the University of Michigan, a research participant had to perform two tasks while his brain images on an MRI scan was photographed. Two numbers were displayed on a screen and the participant was told to decide which digit was larger than the other if the numbers were in red. If the numbers were in green, the participant had to decide which one had a larger font size! This test employed a simple enough task but the MRI showed that when the participant had to switch from the red to the green numbers, his brain went on to pause mode as he had to gather different sets of instructions in order to perform well! So if we had to switch our attention from one task to another rapidly, our brain gets fatigued, thereby making multitasking on different tasks of higher difficulty, impossible!

     Many times you may have tried to complete an essay while singing your favourite song and failed to do either one of these correctly. That is because writing employs the same part of your brain which is responsible for vocally using words! Both these tasks fight for the same brain area and confusion results. Hence multi-tasking of similar activities is very difficult. However, if you had to run while listening to music and sing along, it is possible as the motor behaviour employs a different brain region from the singing behaviour.

     Dividing our attention among multiple bits of information makes sub-optimal levels of attention available to each task making learning ineffective and retrieval and recall unsuccessful!

     Although multi-tasking is useful for completing a number of menial jobs, and those with which we are very familiar and practiced at, it proves ineffective and fatiguing when applied to learning important facts and concepts.