The Autumn of the Multitaskers

Neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy. One man’s odyssey through the nightmare of infinite connectivity
While the president continued talking on the phone (Ms. Lewinsky understood that the caller was a Member of Congress or a Senator), she performed oral sex on him.

—The Starr Report, 1998

I t isn’t working, it never has worked, and though we’re still pushing and driving to make it work and puzzled as to why we haven’t stopped yet, which makes us think we may go on forever, the stoppage or slowdown is coming nonetheless, and when it does, we’ll be startled for a moment, and then we’ll acknowledge that, way down deep inside ourselves (a place that we almost forgot even existed), we always knew it couldn’t work.

The scientists know this too, and they think they know why. Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, they’ve torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down. Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.” It begins by giving us more tasks to do, making each task harder to do, and dimming the mental powers required to do them. It finishes by making us forget exactly how on earth we did them (assuming we didn’t give up, or “multi­quit”), which makes them harder to do again.

Much of the problem is the metaphor. Or perhaps it’s our need for metaphors in general, particularly when the subject is our minds and the comparison seems based on science. In the days of rudimentary chemistry, the mind was thought to be a beaker of swirling volatile essences. Then came classical physical mechanics, and the mind was regarded as a clocklike thing, with springs and wheels. Then it was steam-driven, maybe. A combustion chamber. Then came electricity and Freud, and it was a dynamo of polarized energies—the id charged one way, the superego the other.

Now, in the heyday of the microchip, the brain is a computer. A CPU.

Except that it’s not a CPU. It’s whatever that thing is that’s driven to misconstrue itself—over and over, century after century—as a prototype, rendered in all-too- vulnerable tissue, of our latest marvel of technology. And before the age of modern technology, theology. Further back than that, it’s hard to voyage, since there was a period, common sense suggests, when we didn’t even know we had brains. Or minds. Or spirits. Humans just sort of did stuff. And what they did was not influenced by metaphors about what they ought to be capable of doing but very well might not be equipped for (assuming you wanted to do it in the first place), like editing a playlist to e-mail to the lover whose husband you’re interviewing on the phone about the movie he made that you’re discussing in the blog entry you’re posting tomorrow morning and are one-quarter watching certain parts of as you eat salad and carry on the call.

Would it be possible someday—through drugs, maybe, or esoteric Buddhism, or some profound, postapocalyptic languor—to stop coming up with ideas of what we are and then laboring to live up to them?

The great spooky splendor of the brain, of course, is that no matter what we think it fundamentally resembles— even a small ethereal colosseum where angels smite demons and demons play dead, then suddenly spit fire into the angels’ faces—it does a good job, a great job, of seeming to resemble it.

For a while.

I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.

—Jennifer Connelly, movie star, 2005

After the near-fatal consequences of my 2003 decision to buy a phone with a feature I didn’t need, life went on, and rather rapidly, since multi­tasking eats up time in the name of saving time, rushing you through your two-year contract cycle and returning you to the company store with a suspicion that you didn’t accomplish all you hoped to after your last optimistic, euphoric visit.

“Which of the ones that offer rebates don’t have cameras in them?”

“The decent models all do. The best ones now have video capabilities. You can shoot little movies.”

I wanted to ask, Of what? Oncoming barbed wire? The salesman was a believer, though—a zealot.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “as well as GPS-based, turn-by-turn navigation systems. Which are cool if you drive a lot.”

“You have to look down at the screen, though.”

“They’re paid subscription services, you need to know, but we’re giving away the first month free, and even after that, the rates are reasonable.”

I shook my head. I was turning down whiz-bang features for the first time, and so had some of my friends, one of whom had sprung for a new BlackBerry that he’d holed up in his office to learn to use. He’d emerged a week later looking demoralized, muttering about getting old, although he’d just turned 34.

“Those little ones there—the ones that aren’t so slim, that you give away free.”

“That too is an option. Mostly they’re aimed at kids, though. Adolescents.”

I wanted one anyway. I’d caught air in my Land Cruiser off a sheer embankment, lost my girlfriend, chucked my dream of snapping a hog-tied terrorist, and once, because of another girl—a jealous type who never trusted that I was where I said I was—I’d been forced to send on a shot of L.A. palm trees to prove that I was not in Oregon meeting up with yet another girl whom I’d drunk coffee with after a poetry reading and who must have been bombed a few weeks later when she sent me a text message at 3 a.m. while I was sleeping beside the jealous girl. My bedmate heard the ring, crept out of bed, and read the message, then woke me up and demanded that I explain why it seemed to suggest we’d shared more than double espressos—an effect curiously enhanced by the note’s thumb-typed dyslexic style: Thuoght I saw thoes parkly eyes this aft, that sensaul deivlish mouth, and it took me rihgt in again, like vapmires do.

“I’ll take the fat little free one,” I told the salesman.

“The thing’s inert. It does nothing. It’s a pet rock.”

I informed him that I was old enough to have actually owned a pet rock once and that I missed it.

Here’s the worst of the chilling little thoughts that have come to me during micro­tasking seize-ups: For every driver who’s ever died while talking on a cell phone (researchers at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimate that some 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries may be caused by drivers on cell phones each year), there was someone on the other end who, chances are, was too distracted to notice. Too busy cooking, NordicTracking, fluffing up his online dating profile, or—most hauntingly of all, I’d think, for a listener destined to discover that the acoustic chaos he’d interpreted as the other phone going out of range, or perhaps as a network-wide disturbance triggered by a solar flare, was actually a death, a human death, a death he had some role in— sitting on the toilet.

Trading securities.

Or would watching streaming pornography be worse?

Not that both of these activities can’t be performed on the same computer screen. And often are—you can bet on it. In bathrooms. Even airport bathrooms, on occasion. In some of which, via radio, the latest business headlines can be monitored, permitting (in theory and therefore in fact, because, as the First Law of Multitasking dictates, any two or eight or 16 processes that can overlap must overlap) the squatting day trader viewing the dirty Webcast (while on the phone with someone, don’t forget) to learn that the company he just bought stock in has entered merger talks with his own employer and surged almost 20 percent in under three minutes!

“Guess how much richer I’ve gotten while we’ve been yakking?” he says into his cell, breaking his own rule about pretending that when he’s on the phone, he’s on the phone. Exclusively. Fully. With his entire being.

No reply.

Must be driving through a tunnel.

I’ve been fired, I’ve been insulted in front of co-workers, but the time I flew thousands of miles to meet a boss who spent our first and only hour together politely nodding at my proposals while thumbing out messages on a new device, whose existence neither of us acknowledged and whose screen he kept tilted so I couldn’t see it, still feels, five years later, like the low point of my career.

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Walter Kirn is a novelist and critic who lives in Montana. His latest novel is The Unbinding (2006).

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