Mindfulness and the Myth of Multitasking
Two things struck me this week that I feel can both be related back to the practice of living mindfully. The first happened while watching my 12 year old play Saturday morning sport. My wife and I were sitting on a hill, watching Ben in his first season of Rugby Union. It was early and a little cold in the shade. Without meaning too, I started to notice that as the sun came up over the hill, different parts of me were being pleasantly warmed. I decided to pay more attention to it as the boys were going about their own warm up. It was a pleasant experience and I gradually took in more of my surroundings. The noises, the sights, my own physical state. This contemplation was ‘intruded’ upon by my wife’s expressed fear that our boy would get hurt. As she expressed her concern, I could also share it and agree with it. However, I understood that there was little I could do about it, so I decided to leave it alone. I was pretty attentive to the game and his role in it and I could feel the excitement build as the game built to a result (they lost). I was also pretty good at attending to the game. As we collected him, I overheard another boy speaking with his dad. The theme was that his dad hadn’t been watching and that he was looking at his phone the whole time. Now, I’m sure he wasn’t looking at the phone the whole time, probably just every time his son looked at him. This observation by the son was enough to make the father defensive and the boy feel neglected. I wondered how the rest of their day would go if it started like this at 9:20am.
The second thing that struck me was comments made by a contestant on MasterChef. I enjoy cooking; it’s an excellent opportunity to be in the moment, to catch the tastes, sounds, smells and textures of the food. I don’t enjoy thinking about what to cook, but that’s a matter for another day. The contestant was saying that “they were multitasking like crazy”. Now, I doubt this. I’m sure that they thought they were, but the fact is, humans don’t really multitask at all. According to neuroscience people can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. Different tasks compete for the same brain space and there’s only a limited amount of resources available. What we actually do is switch between tasks very quickly. Brain imaging has confirmed this.
Researchers at Macquarie University says multi-tasking makes it harder to derive satisfaction from performing tasks. The interruptions can make work unsatisfying and lead workers to not perform a job as well as they would if they did not have to switch often between tasks and just focus on one at a time. It is known that the area in the brain most involved with multi-tasking is the one most likely to be affected by stress. The pre-frontal cortex helps to assess tasks, prioritise them and assign mental resources. It also marks the spot where we left off a task so we can return to it later. This area is affected by prolonged stress. UK research shows distracted workers suffer a greater loss of IQ than people who smoke marijuana. Another UK study found the average worker’s functioning IQ, a temporary qualitative state, drops 10 points when multitasking. That is more than double the four-point drop that occurs when someone smokes marijuana. Don’t get me wrong, marijuana use brings its own issues, but it’s an interesting point and another reason not to use the phone while driving!
When we compare this research on multitasking with the research on mindfulness, the results are clear. In writing this article, there was some evidence that mindfulness practise on a regular basis can improve IQ by building better connections between neurons and increasing grey matter in the brain, however, probably not enough evidence to state this definitively. What I can tell you with certainty is that stress makes poor choices, mindfulness reduces stress and therefore mindful decisions made with reason rather than emotion will probably be better in the long run.
For a fascinating TED Talk on the nature of stress, follow this link.
Paying mindful attention to one task makes us more efficient, encodes memories better, reduces stress, lets us watch our kids play sport and enjoy the warming of the sun while sitting on a bench watching rugby on a Saturday morning.
Mr Anthony Freeman
College Counsellor — Kinnoull