This is your brain on multitasking

A colleague sent me a link to an article from the Washington Post called "Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?" (by Lori Aratani, 2/26/07). I know it was sent partly because he thought I'd be interested in the topic, but also partly because he wants me to see proof in black & white at how bad all this technology is for students. He's down on edtech, so I am seen as the enemy in some ways.

Most of the piece focuses on a 17-year-old girl who multitasks her way through an evening of homework while watching MTV, sending instant messages, talking on her cellphone, text messaging, checking, adding some comments and checking new photos on Facebook. It will delight admissions counselors to know that she confessed to the writer that she was filling in a college application while she was being interviewed.

The author points out that her homework was to "define 'descent with modification' and explain how 'the tree analogy represents the evolutionary relationship of creatures' on a worksheet for her AP biology class." (If the assignment had been to write a poem, would we have been less impressed/distressed by her multitasking?)

I had a problem with my own sons ten years ago (they're in college now) when the Net hit our house hard and they were doing the same thing (albeit without Facebook & a lot of the other sites, and with only a sadly slow land line phone and modem). My fear was the same as it is for parents and educators today - this must have a detrimental effect on their ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

Bring in a lab coat.

There is special concern for teenagers because parts of their brain are still developing, said Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

"Introducing multitasking in younger kids in my opinion can be detrimental," he said. "One of the biggest problems about multitasking is that it's almost impossible to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you're multitasking. And if it becomes normal to do, you'll likely be satisfied with very surface-level investigation and knowledge."

But the girl in the story has a GPA of 3.85. My sons did very well too.

So I start to think, "Maybe it's just me who can't multitask like that." After all, I had no talent for videogames and still hate my cellphone and can't text message with just my thumb while doing something else.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that when students are sitting in front of their computers "studying," they're also doing something else 65 percent of the time. In 1999, 16 percent of teenagers said they were "media multitaskers" -- defined as using several type of media, such as television or computers, at once. By 2005, that percentage had increased to 26 percent. The foundation also found that girls were more likely to media multitask than boys.

26% actually sounds low to me. I mean even my own primitive brain is working the laptop to write this while I'm "watching" (OK, maybe listening to) the news on TV and checking the paper copy of the article from the Post and a survey I printed from the Net.

I don't think most of our students have a choice about multitasking. Just as many of our undergrads have no choice but to work part-time while being a full time student.

"Kids who grow up under conditions where they have to multitask a lot may be developing styles of coping that would allow them to perform better in future environments where required to do a lot, but that doesn't mean their performance in the workplace would be better than if they were doing one thing at a time."
David Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan

See - it's great training for those law firms and engineering jobs that will require you to do 80 hours a week in order to succeed.

The research is not definitive about whether multitasking helps, hurts or has no effect on teens' development.

Light My Hippocampus
Still, when they do imaging on these multitaskers and the hippocampus (responsible for storing and recalling information) gets lit up to do a task but quiets down when they multitask, what are we to think?

Well, at least the striatum gets active and that's the part that we use to master repetitive skills. That must be why my son can text message with one hand like a pro.

But he also knows that sometimes he needs a quiet place to read without distractions. (Thomas Hardy will do that to you.)

Maybe what we as educators need to really do is make sure that our students are exposed to as many learning situations as possible, and if they are getting plenty of multi-inputs outside of our classrooms, we might need to provide a balance of single channel environments to develop the entire brain.


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