Multitasking may present dangers

By Christine Kim

At a time of continuously updated technology and rapid development of new devices, there are very few students who walk through the Quad focusing solely on one task.

The arms that sway back and forth end with fingertips gripping an iPod or a cell phone. Students are constantly occupying themselves by talking on their cell phones, conversing with a friend next to them or burying their heads in a notebook, sneaking in a quick review for the exam they are speed walking to.

The human species has always had the ability to address several tasks at the same time. However, multitasking is now so commonplace in the lives of students that they do not understand the consequences that may arise.

“The issue is not the brain (but) how well you’re going to be doing what you’re doing by accommodating multitasking situations,” said Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “If you’re doing more in a short period, the quality of all those things is likely to decrease.”

Decades of experiments in cognitive psychological work consistently show that multitasking accomplishes quantity, not quality. Grafman said people downplay the idea of lower performances by telling themselves that they do not have to be perfect at everything. However, this method of easing the negative performances and continuing multitasking will bring negatives effects in the future, Grafman said.

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“In essence, it’s not so different from other influences that we have,” he said. “If you do something a lot you become very conservative and that’s the mode of processing that’s preferred. If you learn that this is a good way of operating, it’s going to cost you in other circumstances because you won’t be able to adjust easily.”

Jenny Kim, graduate student in neuroscience at the Beckman Institute, is currently researching a new version of the dual task study. The dual task study requires a participant to view a letter, number or both on a computer screen and respond by pressing the corresponding unit on the keyboard.

Participants who viewed both a number and a letter require a longer reaction time than they would for a single task. Also, older participants had a harder time performing and reacting.

“If you’re doing more than one task, you’re dividing up the resources,” Kim said. “In a way, one of the differences is possibly that the new generation, cognitive skill-wise, is trained to multitask better.”

Tate Kubose, graduate student at the Beckman Institute, is researching the relationship between speech and driver performance. The study addresses the difference between talking on a cell phone and talking to a live person while driving. He said a person in the car knows what is going on for the driver and knows when it is all right to talk. A person on the other end of a cell phone is not aware of the driver’s surroundings.

While many people say they multitask, Grafman said true multitasking is almost impossible. What people are doing is ordering the sequence of activities that are performed, Grafman said. The frontal lobe of the brain, located around the front of the head, is in charge of the sequencing as well as other tasks.

Grafman is researching further into the function of human frontal lobes to gain more insight on knowledge storage and how it helps in day-to-day life.

He compares multitasking to a normal version of attention deficit disorder. He believes that when multitasking results in consequences, the problems leading to the consequences are unknown because they are never reflected upon. Grafman said in the future there will be more opportunities to multitask, requiring people to gain better control over their actions.

“I think cell phones and iPods scare me because you see students cross the street without looking,” Kubose said. “Nothing happens that time but (later) chances are greater. Our hope (with the driving distraction research) is that legislation will pass preventing it. Generally speaking, I think it should be addressed.”