Lost In Wonderland?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 25, 2009 11:00 pm

Turns out I’ve had good reason to worry about how The Matrix is impacting humans. Over at Health.com:

A new study suggests that people who often do multiple tasks in a variety of media—texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more—do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way.

Specifically, heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chris, Bora, PhilSci, Isis, Physioprof, Zuska, Jessica, PalMD, Grrl, Janet and the rest… we may have a problem.  Then again, what’s wrong with being mad as a hatter?


Comments (11)

  1. Oh Bora, you didn’t like the set up for the Alice in Wonderland trailer?

    As for blogs, I’ve had the sense of falling down the rabbit hole since day one

  2. You guys should consider writing a response to the anti-vaxxer nuts at Age of Autism who had the audacity to challenge your understanding of the science:


  3. Of course, the really important thing about this study is that… hang on, I have a text…

  4. On a more serious note, the media have largely ignored the fact that “multimedia” in this study refers to 12 activities, which include print media, TV, music, non-music audio and telephone calls, rather than just online stuff. As Vaughan from Mind Hacks says, “You could have multitasked five out of the twelve activities in the 1950s.”

  5. Ah, hm. So in other words, multi-taskers are bad at multi-tasking, as in competently engaging in and successfully achieving multiple tasks in quick succession, as this requires attentional volition for each particular task when it happens to be on the docket. But we’re not supposed to believe that conclusion, because:

    a) flightiness might turn out to be good for something or other somewhere down the line (to be shown by future experiments),
    b) the success of some conceivable tasks actually hinges upon flightiness (or susceptibility to roving attention — like being able to turn your attention towards a distracting stimulus, which might i.e., turn out to be a child running on to the road).

    But (a) is not an objection, it’s a statement about every conclusion you can ever make in any study. And (b) is (at least for us who took Young Drivers lessons) entirely on-task behavior, so long as we are speaking of the task of driving. (So are we meant to separate the task of driving into sub-tasks, then evaluate them…?)

    Have I understood the two objections fairly? Am I missing something? By all means, correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Ian

    It may be oan old wives tale, but aren’t women meant to be better at multi-tasking than men? So, if multi-tasking is ‘bad’ for you, then does that mean men have got it right?

  7. Vaughan’s post that Ed mentioned is here and it is excellent.

  8. Oh, and I have commented on the (awsecome) Alice trailer on Twitter about a month ago… 😉

  9. Gadfly

    Ian, I’ve also heard that women are better an multi-tasking but I don’t think it’s an old wives tale. I’d argue an evolutionary component. In hunter-gatherer societies the men went far afield hunting while the women gathered and forgaged closer to camp to watch over children. Men focused heavily on single task, tracking an animal to kill it. Women focused on many tasks, examining differnt potential food sources while watching our for danger to themselves and their offspring, and keeping an eye on the kids to see they didn’t wander off. I think this is also an argument why men are resistant to asking directions. Any guy who wandered off and couldn’t find his way home couldn’t feed his family and probably didn’t make it long enough to pass on his genes in any case. So there’s a built-in defensiveness (real men don’t ask directions) about getting lost.

  10. Evidently I have a soft spot for the science communicators today.

    The only argument in the new post that I didn’t comment on above was the “1950s argument”:

    “In other words, listening to music while reading a book counts as ‘media multitasking’, as does chatting on the telephone while watching television, none of which need digital technology. In fact, you could have multitasked five out of the twelve activities (print, TV, music, nonmusic audio, phone calls) in the 1950s.”

    Well, okay, but for one thing, listening to music is an activity, but it isn’t usually a task — there’s no necessary goal there except stimulation. For another thing, one would expect the results to generalize to those that like to engage in the above activities in the 1950s multimedia environment. That proves that the present-day media has forgotten its Marshall McLuhan, but not much more.

    A much more telling criticism would be that the thing that distinguishes our present-day multi-taskers from their 1950s analogues is the quality (or complexity) of the tasks, but that of course isn’t the experiment that was done. And the media exaggerated the importance of a half-second delay, of course, though they’re helped in making their hyperbole when you have comments to the effect that half a second is an eternity in neuroscience.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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