So the experts have finally weighed in: multitasking increases the chances of making mistakes. This would seem pretty obvious for anyone in back of a driver on a cell phone. Actually, cell phones are the worst kinds of distractions (destined to be judged a scourge of mankind, in my view), but multitasking appears to be a bad idea on any number of fronts. I mean, does it take a study or legislative fiat to affirm that checking your e-mail in between diagnosing a cancer patient is inviting trouble? The Sunday NYT lays out the particulars:
The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University. Mr. Marois and three other Vanderbilt researchers reported in an article last December in the journal Neuron that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.
Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images. The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.
But wait a minute - isn't the younger generation more adept at this sort of thing? Not necessarily. In one study, a group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers. The younger group did better when not interrupted, but when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, the differences evened out.