Does Multitasking Lead To A More Productive Brain?

Clifford Nass, author, forthcoming "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop" (Penguin Current, 2010), professor, communication, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.

Adam Gazzaley, M.D., associate professor, neurology, physiology and psychiatry, director, neuroscience imaging center, University of California, San Francisco

Multitasking is a trademark of modern office work, but is it really more productive? Research suggests the brain is actually more efficient when focusing on one task at a time. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the benefits and drawbacks of multitasking, and ways to limit distractions.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Has your life become loaded or overloaded with information? I mean, if you're anything like me, you've got tweets popping up, Skype chats going on, emails pinging. All the while, you're trying to get some work done and follow Steve's iPhone presentation, and of course, then your phone rings.

We are living in the age of multitasking, but is our brain actually capable of taking it all in without losing something in the process? And are you as good at juggling all these streams of information as you think you are?

The promise of the paperless office produced more paper than ever before. Are we seeing another sea change? The online world, which promised to make us more productive, is it actually distracting us too much?

Kids today have grown up texting from the dinner table. Is multitasking hurting their ability to focus not just on their homework but on people, as well? You know, it used to be rude if someone text from the dinner table, but it seems like, well, that's becoming commonplace.

Do we even expect people to look at us, not their cell phones, when they're talking on their phones or when they're talking to us, or is that basic concept of paying attention to people, just paying attention to them as - you know, instead of just texting while you're talking, has that changed, too? Should we not expect that anymore?

And you parents, aren't you just as hooked to your BlackBerrys and iPads as your kids?

So what if you'd like to get off that train? Is there any way to slow down that information, to free yourself from all the distractions, to turn the clock back to those old, boring, 20th-century values?

Thats what we're going to be talking about today. Remember that old commercial line: this is your brain on drugs. Well fast-forward: this is your brain online.

Give us a call, our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're on Twitter, you can tweet us. Use your - by hitting that @ sign followed by scifri, and also you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com and join the conversation that's going on there now.

Clifford Nass is the author of the forthcoming book "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop." Yeah, that's out later this year. He's also professor of communication at Stanford University, and he joins us from the campus there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor CLIFFORD NASS (Stanford University): Delighted to be back, thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Adam Gazzaley is an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. He's also director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center there. Dr. Gazzaley joins us from Barcelona. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Gazzaley.

Dr. ADAM GAZZALEY (Director, Neuroscience Imaging Center, University of California, San Francisco): Great to be here.

FLATOW: Adam, do we have any idea what's going on in our brain when we multitask? I mean, is our brain made to multitask?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Well, we're learning a lot more. I think the advance of brain imaging and what we call functional brain imaging, seeing what your brain is doing while we challenge it, has really clarified a lot of what's happening.

A lot of this has been suspect for a long time, but we're learning a lot more of the details, and it certainly seems that our brains are not - you know, it's becoming increasingly viewed that our brains are not highly adapted for multiple streams of information at the same time but rather focusing at a particular direction.

And we see that usually what happens when you demand great degrees of quality or of care, as opposed to something that's automatic like chewing gum and walking, when you demand this, what happens as opposed to actually doing two things at the same time, it seems that you switch between these things. And with each switch, there's a cost, a cost in performance that occurs.

FLATOW: So Dr. Gazzaley, there is some negative. There is a negative impact on our brain this way?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Well, it does seem that there's a negative impact on performance. We're now learning what are the neural mechanisms by which you try to multitask and maybe if those can be improved. But it does seem that if you look at the quality that you achieve doing one thing at a time as opposed to switching rapidly between them as you attempt to multitask, that there is some cost over there.

FLATOW: Can you actually see this in the brain as it works? Is it possible?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Well, yeah, we can see what's going on as you engage in something that you might be doing, and we do this in experiments in our lab. We set up our participants. They're inside the scanner. They're viewing something. Maybe they're trying to remember something, and then they're challenged with something else.

And we can see that as opposed to if they were doing one thing continuously, their brain sort of switches gears to the new task and then requires that they reactivate the original thing that they were doing.

Now, this is a very simplified experiment so we could see what's occurring in the brain, but you can imagine in real life and sort of your description at the beginning, when you have emails coming in, and the music's playing with your MP3s, and you're checking your email, and you're working on your Word document at the same time, how that impairs performance.

FLATOW: Now Clifford Nass, you've done some studies that actually look at how well people are able to multitask. Do people think they're better at it than they really are?

Prof. NASS: Well, people - the people who multitask most frequently think they're actually the best at it, and in fact, they're the worst at it. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests that the people who multitask the most actually are the least capable of any important aspect of multitasking.

FLATOW: Really?

Prof. NASS: Yeah, this absolutely shocked us. We embarked on our research assuming there must be some secret talent that I wish I and my other colleagues who aren't multi-taskers had, and we resulted in finding out they're pretty bad at everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How do you know if you're a good multi-tasker or not?

Prof. NASS: Well, it's hard for people to know. I mean, we actually have studies that look at the most fundamental things one needs to be able to do to multitask: filter out irrelevancy, manage your short-term memory well and actually how rapidly, as Adam mentions, you switch tasks. And in all of these cases, even when they're not multitasking, multi-taskers are just much worse at it.

FLATOW: If they're not good at multitasking, are they better at something else?

Prof. NASS: So far, the only thing we have suggestive evidence for, although it's for a tragic reason, is they seem to be better talking on the cell phone while driving. They're still very bad at it and shouldn't do it, but it turns out that when you - when anyone talks on the cell phone, that becomes their primary focus, and they're really trying to filter out the road, this thing that's distracting them from the conversation.

And ironically, because high multi-taskers are bad at filtering out the road, they actually see the road more and drive a little better.

FLATOW: But of course, you're saying that - you're not advising multi-taskers to do that.

Prof. NASS: Oh no, everyone is much, much worse, it's just low multi-taskers are worse still. Plus, the idea that when you're driving, the road is sort of an annoying distraction probably is not a prescription for good driving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No. Adam, is technology evolving faster than our brains can adapt?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Well, you know, I think that that is - that's the sort of provocative question here that certainly Clifford's study has really highlighted. It seems that the increase in the number of information streams that we attempt to engage in is really exceeding our resources and there seems to be a tremendous attraction to do it, despite the fact that many of us are aware, even while we're doing it, to some degree that maybe that document that you're working on just is not as good as if you didn't check your texts during it.

So, you know, I think it's an interesting question to think about how we interact with our environment, how this is influenced by technology and how we respond to it, how our brains can deal with it.

FLATOW: But kids now are growing up with multitasking. I mean, kids, you know, they just sit there - and I say kids, I mean people in their 20s and 30s, too. They think it's nothing to sit there and have a conversation with you without you really being there. They're twittering and doing all kinds of stuff.

Dr. GAZZALEY: Yeah, I mean, I think that this is a really scary and important thing to consider: What are the implications of this? We don't really have long-term data on what it means to engage in such continuous multitasking from a young age.

You know, I think there's a question of whether or not you develop - and Clifford's study suggests this - you know, potentially that you develop a different cognitive style, one that does not permit you to really engage in one sustained activity at a high quality, maybe the type of activity that you need to do to read a book, where you actually turn from page to page to page to page without interruption to actually take in that information.

And, you know, I think a question that we don't know the answer to for sure is what are the developmental implications of growing up in such a different environment than a lot of us did.

FLATOW: Cliff, can you add any to that?

Prof. NASS: Yeah, there - so far, it seems that the developmental implications are very worrisome. As I said, the children, we look at college students primarily, although we're expanding to many other populations, students who have had a great deal of multitasking in their younger lives, and what we're seeing is, again, the ones who do it more lose some fundamental abilities.

Now, the other part of this you've alluded to is when I actually tried to, with a couple of colleagues, get a group of students to stop multitasking for a week just so we could see if it would have any effect, despite the fact we offered money and all sorts of things, everyone said no, it would destroy my social life. I really can't live in a world in which I can't constantly communicate with a whole bunch of other people via whole other number of media while I'm consuming content about yet other people.

And so essentially what we've done is even if we knew that multitasking was affecting our brains in a negative way, there is so much social pressure not just for the young, but in the workplace, more and more companies are demanding that you answer every email within 15 minutes, keep multiple chat windows open, you should be accessible by phone and not, you know, let things go to voicemail. So the social pressure to continue multitasking is absolutely enormous, despite the probable cognitive and, perhaps even more importantly, social harms.

FLATOW: But do we know in a work environment that this makes you any more productive or less productive?

Prof. NASS: Well, we know it makes you less productive in two senses: one in the sense that Adam referred to earlier, which was every time you switch from one task to another, you pay a price.

A second way is that we've sort of deduced or decided that deep, hard thinking, the type of stuff you do, like, when you're writing something, writing a paper or something, that you really have to think hard, or you're reading some complex news story, I think there's been a devaluation of really hard thinking, which is exactly what multitasking either prevents from one point of view or wonderfully allows you to avoid.

FLATOW: So then that will be a luxury in the future.

Prof. NASS: Well, except that so much of our science, our cultures, depend on people thinking hard. So if it is a luxury, it means we've got a whole lot of work to do in our educational system, in our knowledge discovery systems that are engineered to figure out how do we design a world in which the lack of deep thinking actually works out well.

FLATOW: Uh oh, I think we're there politically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back, talk lots more, take your phone calls, 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Clifford Nass, author of the upcoming book "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop." I guess he did have to in this multitasking world. And Adam Gazzaley is associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry, University of California.

So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about multitasking this hour with Clifford Nass and Adam Gazzaley. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Howard - I'm talking like a multi-tasker -in Gallipolis, Ohio. Hi, Howard.

HOWARD (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, Ira. I love your show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

HOWARD: Some people I think enjoy multitasking - I'm a dog groomer. I can groom a dog, answer the phone, make an appointment all at the same time without stopping what I'm doing. I think sometimes people just like the pressure.

FLATOW: Yeah, Adam, what is this about all this information that we love it so much? Are we wired to love this sort of stuff?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Well, it's clear that there needs to be a lot more work on understanding exactly why we enjoy this so much. Some it makes sense from understanding our desire and response to be engaged by novelty.

So, you know, it's well-known that novel stimuli and environment arouse the reward system, and this is part of what allowed us to evolve to be sort of engaged by novelty. And multitasking probably has a higher novelty load in general as you continuously switch to new things that feel exciting.

So, you know, perhaps that's part of it, but it certainly does seem that some of the interaction that people have with it may be, you know, almost reaches sort of what can be thought of as a level of addiction, where they crave this type of stimulation.

FLATOW: Do you agree, Clifford?

Mr. NASS: Yeah, we actually do have some evidence, we are tracking down more of it, that most high multi-taskers, people who chronically multitask, believe that new information is better than old information, whereas low multi-taskers believe that the information they're working with is more valuable.

I mean, Barbara Freed at Stanford makes the point that for the younger people, looking at other streams of information, it's because they think something thrilling is happening. For older people who, you know, check their emails frantically, it's not because we think there's something great there just lurking for us, it's that we just don't really want to think that hard or for that long or just want to get away.

FLATOW: It doesn't look like we're going to be turning the clock back on multitasking anytime soon. So, is there a way to practice it to get better at it?

Dr. GAZZALEY: There is some data, now, that multitasking, or at least dealing with interruptions and dealing with distractions, which I sort of put in a different category, things that we're trying to actively keep out of our streams, and that, you know, also seems to have a great impact on performance, that these skills might be trainable.

We actually have some experiments in our lab now, trying to see if individuals - especially older individuals who show a susceptibility to both multitasking and distraction's impact on memory even greater than young adults - if they, by practicing this, can develop these skills and potentially improve memory abilities.

So there's already data out there that suggests that these skills, like most skills, are trainable to some degree, and, you know, how far we can go with that is still an open question.

Mr. NASS: And I think learning or reminding oneself that there is a joy to just focusing, that there is something delightful about it, especially in the social realm, where actually we think we're seeing the most scary, negative effects. But there's something lovely about thinking hard.

FLATOW: Well, how - is it an addiction? Is it a habit? How do you break yourself? Give us a tip or two of how to get back to those good old days five years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NASS: Well, what I do is, as I was writing my book - as all authors will tell you, there's many times the last thing you want to do is write. So I would say okay, if you're not going to write the book, you don't get to, you know, read a magazine or whatever. You have to clean the toilets.

And boy, my writing really got down pretty fast, and I got the book out on time. So I think putting oneself where the alternative is not just a playful information task, but instead is, you know, hard, physical labor, will really encourage mental work.

Dr. GAZZALEY: In my case, I find that sometimes I seek out multitasking. I'm doing activities that are fairly boring. They don't demand a very high quality of performance. And so I tag them together, I switch back and forth, and it makes it more pleasurable to go through.

However, I think that this new awareness, since I've been researching this more recently, you know, the awareness of the impact that it has has led me to change my style and sort of just require some discipline and say okay, I am now working on something that has a deadline, it has to be very high quality. I have two hours. I'm quitting my email. I will survive without checking my email for two hours, put my phone on airplane mode, close my door and really just try to do one thing at a time.

And I've been doing that more frequently, recently, and I find that I get a lot more done, and I think the quality is higher. So some of it I think comes down to discipline and sort of retraining yourself, recognizing the impact that this has on your performance and then just behaving differently.

FLATOW: Maybe asking for help from people, like here, take my cell phone and my iPad or whatever. Don't let me have this for the next hour.

Dr. GAZZALEY: It might help.

FLATOW: You know, or go outside at night, and, you know, instead of sitting there doing Facebook or something, go look at the stars and go outside away from all that stuff and get a different kind of input that's pleasurable.

Dr. GAZZALEY: Yeah, and just practice. I mean, try sitting through a dinner conversation, realizing that your, in your pocket, your phone has just notified that a text has arrived and actually try to not check it and see, you know, see how that feels and see how you can work through that and realize that you can survive without this constant need for updating all your information streams.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. NASS: I'm sorry. And in the social world, there really is a great joy, I think one that perhaps younger people have lost, in really attending to someone else, really listening hard to what they're saying and really saying I'm going to just totally think hard here. It makes the other person feel fabulous, and it's quite rewarding.

FLATOW: Well, but, you know, you say some people have lost it. Some people have never been told about it. They're young enough that this is what they grew up with as being acceptable behavior.

Dr. GAZZALEY: I think that education in this realm is important. You know, and that's why I think that it's critical, as more of these studies come out, that the information just passed along so we could make better-informed decisions, especially in children growing up, where they might not, you know, be aware both of the social implications, as well as safety implications and cognitive implications of this type of behavior.

FLATOW: Fran(ph) in Laurel, Maryland, hi.

FRAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

FRAN: I think everybody is pretty much on point here. I'm 50 years old in this world, and I've seen this stuff evolve up to this technological point. And I agree with everything that you're saying.

These things are very dehumanizing, and they're controlling our time and our lives, and, you know, I go into restaurants, and I see the parents allow their kids to do their computers, you know, while you're eating. That is so wrong.

You know, you're supposed to be with your family, discussing the day and discussing the issues, and enjoying what the meal is meant to be, and that is enjoyed for the nutritional value of it.

And when we had let the kids, you know, take the iPods and do all that, it takes away from that time that you have with one another. You know, we're only here a short time, and you need to, you know, get to know one another, and what you were saying was correct. It takes away from our being able to have relationships with one another.

FLATOW: All right, Fran, thanks for dropping in on us today, and have a good weekend.

FRAN: You, too.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. 1-800-989-8255. Let me see if I can get one more call in here from Mansur(ph) in Ann Arbor.

MANSUR (Caller): Yes, hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

MANSUR: Just a quick question. My daughter, who is a high schooler, and we have been arguing back and forth for a while. She does her homework with music in her ears, nonstop, and I say, well, you can't concentrate on the homework. And she says she can do it better with music. So, who amongst us is right?

FLATOW: Well, Adam, what do you think? You know, this is almost like ancient history now. I remember when my kids did homework, oh, it's just music that they're doing. It was only one thing, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's, like, years ago, maybe two years ago. I used to say the same thing and say how do you do your homework with the music on? Now, how do you do the homework with the tweeting and the music and the phones and everything else?

Dr. GAZZALEY: Yeah, the music question is a challenging one. I don't know if Clifford agrees with this, but, you know, if you look at the data, there's definitely some mixed data in the world, in the literature of looking at the impact of background music.

So there is some evidence that possibly having distracting information around you that you're forced to push out might help you focus more. There's been some studies in the workplace with different - actually not necessarily music but at least white noise - showing some benefit, as opposed to a total silence or listening to the chatter of each other working.

So I think that that one still needs a bit of investigation, and just to clarify, you know, there's multitasking, what we're talking about, when you choose to engage in a secondary task while you're already doing something; and then there's this entirely other world, that's very complex, of distraction, the type of information that you're trying to block out or maybe exposing yourself to to block out, that is also interfering with our goals.

And we have a lot of evidence that this really decreases, this ability to block out these distractions, as you get older, and it affects your memory.

So I think that we still want to figure out a lot more about what type of distractions might be helpful and allow you to focus, and what really harm you.

FLATOW: Clifford, any final notes here?

Prof. NASS: Yeah. We're actually - Adam's right. Music is very complicated. The things we do know are - if you're listening to vocal music, music with voices, while you're reading, that is definitely a distraction. Instrumental music is the one where, really, the jury is out. We're starting a major study exactly on that. So if you want to compromise with your kids, it's - if there's no voices, that's okay.

The reason is that voices engage the exact same part of your brain that listens to - that processes words, whereas instrumental music is processed on the other side of your brain. So there's likely to be less interference. But again, the jury is out, and it's an area we really are diving into because it is so important.

FLATOW: Well, this has been quite interesting. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today.

Clifford Nass is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop." We'll have you back when the book is out, Cliff, okay?

Prof. NASS: Please do.

FLATOW: Okay. He's also professor of communication at Stanford University. Adam Gazzaley is associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. He's also director of the neuroscience imaging center there. Thanks again for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. GAZZALEY: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Prof. NASS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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