Monday, 19 January 2015

Multitasking- a 'powerful and diabolical illusion'?

As many of you know, I have returned to tertiary study. It is over a decade since I last studied at this level and I have to say it is certainly a challenging undertaking, even though I am loving what I am learning and am passionate about my chosen area of research.

The biggest challenge for me is not the academic aspects- the finding of relevant research, the selecting of  methodology or even deciding on a philosophical framework. No, it is much less complicated than all of those things - it is simply having the mental focus to sit down, read for a sustained period of time and concentrate my thoughts on what I am reading.

I thought it was that I was just out of the habit and that a bit of tough self talk would solve the problem. And it does...until after about 10 minutes, I start to think about whether I have a reply to that email I wrote, or if there might be a latest photo posted of my new granddaughter on Facebook and so  I 'reward' myself with a break to check up on those things. Sounds reasonable until I remember that I ask teachers not to keep their students on the mat for more than 10 - 15 minutes in the junior school! So really- do I have the concentration span of a five or six year old?

Well, this morning I read a blog based on this book: Daniel J. Levitin. Extracted from The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, published by Viking.

It was extremely illuminating and helped me to understand what is going on inside my head! Basically, Levitin talks about the fact that our brains are busier than ever and that we are doing more than we have ever done in the past. For example, most of us research and book our own travel on line when ten years ago, a travel agent would do this for us.

 I  have often said that the move from a content driven curriculum to a concept driven one has been necessary in this age of easy information- literally at our fingertips! But, it does mean that we have the potential to be bombarded with information. Many of us attempt to cope by multitasking, by cramming as much as we can into our day using our 'Swiss Army Knife' smartphones to help us, to the point where we even text while we walk ( much to the annoyance of other pedestrians!)

However, Levitan says that multitasking is a 'powerful and diabolical illusion' as we are just actually switching tasks at the 'cognitive cost' of being less efficient. Additionally, and really importantly for our students, multitasking can cause learned information to go into the wrong part of the brain, hindering long term retrieval. So this could explain in some part, difficulty in retaining and retrieving  important information.

He also says that multitasking increases the presence of cortisol as well as adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause a mental fog or scrambled thinking. He says it causes a 'dopamine- addiction feedback loop' which, in effect, causes the brain to be rewarded for loosing focus and constantly searching for new stimulation.

So what does this mean for our students? It means things like remembering the importance of focusing on one task at a time, of not watching TV while studying, of being aware of information overload, of putting our phones down more often and of being aware of what is happening inside of our children's heads. Apparently, 8-18 year olds spend a quarter of their media time using multiple media and 24% of 12-18 year old teenagers use another media device while watching TV.

Do read the full article, here is the link:

I hope that you will find it as interesting as I did and I look forward to your comments!

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