On Multitasking

People aren't computers, and we think differently.

by Thomas Anderson

Multi-tasking is not a new concept. In the computer industry, it has been used to describe the operations of certain types of computers for years. And now, the increasing complexity of computer processors has begun to simulate the human brain, bringing the question as to whether humans can use their brains in the same way.

In the past few years the concept of humans who can multi-task has become an assumed fact. We all do it to one degree or another. There are two views on the concept of multi-tasking, though, and both are somewhat correct.

On the human side of multi-tasking: without realizing it, we slide into multi-tasking mode from time to time, and we do it seamlessly in the blink of an eye. As we grow from infant to mature adult, we develop skills of concentration which allow us the luxury of doing more than one thing at a time. And many of us can do several things at once, like cook, watch TV, open a wine bottle, pour a drink of wine, talk on the phone, and feed the cat, all at once.

Or do we actually do that all at once?  Do we instead do one thing at a time and shift our concentration quickly from one task to another? Is that what the real definition of multi-tasking is? If we break those tasks down, do we find that we do one at a time while we call it multi-tasking?

“People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself,” claims neuroscientist Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience from the MIT. He backs this claim up by revealing that the tasks we're carrying compete in using the same part of our brain, “Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time. You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks. They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them.”

This writer has witnessed people who get themselves all wrapped up in a single task while the world whizzes by, and others who get so many different tasks going – balls in the air – that their performance on each grinds to a halt.

Most people don’t usually function at either extreme of that example. The singly-focused individual is rare in this age of split-second time demands. We seldom have the luxury of attacking only one problem at a time. There are constant conflicting demands that divert our attention away from that single task and most of us who intend to be dedicated to a particular job find ourselves doing several things at once.

That person who has multiple balls in the air eventually reaches the point where adding one more makes him succumb to the force of gravity, and the neatly cascading spheres become bouncing, rolling objects. The result of an overtaxed attention span is an ugly embarrassment.

Everybody can handle two or three tasks gracefully; most people will give up before having 30 on their plate. Where is the point at which the number of tasks begins to overwhelm? Theoretically, that is the province of time management and scheduling, a certain amount of which we do instinctively and with ease.

We have all observed aptly named toddlers new to the art of walking who have their attention distracted and end up seated on the floor; this was because the toddler was subjected to the prodigious confusion of setting one foot in front of the other as the cat walked by. It is at this time of development that we all learned how to concentrate on more than one activity. Walking required concentration, but we were incapable of continuing to walk if that concentration was lost.

Did walking require less mental activity as we aged? It probably requires the exact same amount of mental activity, but we have learned to make that particular mental activity into an autonomic response – balance, direction, placing one foot in front of the other, shifting the balance, bringing the other foot forward, all at a rapid rate and with no conscious thought.

As we get more capable of the mechanics of walking, we begin to add things like holding a doll and its blankey while we walk. The sophistication eventually reaches the level of Fred Biletnikoff pulling down a spiraling pass over his shoulder at a full speed sprint. We don’t think of the individual actions that make up our multi-tasking effort.

Your columnist’s experience has seen the changing of his capability to concentrate in various environments. His innate capability of concentration in very distracting environments has changed to a far more distraction-prone awareness of his surroundings over the years. This has occurred as he has gotten older; also the types of distractions have begun to be more intrusive. It seems that attention spans have gone from hours to seconds in the last 20 years.

There are a number of reasons why this has happened. One is – an intensely deliberate one – because advertisers have spent billions on learning how to do this regularly and at will. They interrupt our concentration to influence purchasing decisions. On a more personal level, our kids are equipped by nature for doing this with the pitch of their voices and the persistence of their demands. They have also learned the advertisers’ techniques by osmosis from the constant presence of advertising.

But that isn’t all. In the workplace there are multiple projects from which to choose and coffee to get and other workers moving about. In traffic there’s traffic. Our senses are beset by the infinite attention-grabbing factors which make up 21st century life.

We are confronted with choices upon choices; sometimes the immediacy of a choice becomes more important than the long term value of that choice, and we take on the tasks of the more present at the expense of the more enduring.

Many times, we see the multi-tasking mistakes of others from afar with the luxury of being able to use a rational view of the choices at hand. The person involved is making split-second decisions where a more disinterested observer can evaluate repercussions of decisions more dispassionately.

But is that what really happened? Was it a “multi-tasking” choice at all? It was maybe a choice of internal (to the mind) scheduling. “What gets the attention next?” is the decision that is to be made at the time, and it is heavily influenced by factors that would later prove to be less important than other ones.

We frequently make those choices based on incomplete information. In this state many of us try to predict the future by relying upon patterns from the past. We call this “intuition,”and it sometimes leads us into that wrong choice described above. A completely rational Mr. Spock-like person would have intuition that would produce perfectly rational results. His choices would be made in a split second without error, could shift from subject to subject instantaneously, and would produce results indistinguishable from multi-tasking.

Those results would also be indistinguishable from the results produced by a machine – a computer. Computers don’t actually do multi-tasking, either. It is an illusion produced by high-speed choice making, enhanced by the number of cores which the processor uses in its handling of the task. A computer’s processor does the tiny pieces of tasks one at a time.

The computer’s processor can switch from core to core at high speed and can select tasks from the queue at even higher speed, thus gaining the illusion of multiprocessing. In the example cited above, writing an email and talking on the phone can seem to be handled by a multicore processor as simultaneous processes. And as multi-processes are assigned the resources of the computer, the “typing” task of writing the email can occur at the same time as the “speaking” task of talking.

Thus, seemingly, the computer can appear to outperform the human in this multi-tasking pair of chores. And it is because of the speed in which the tasks are performed. Multicore processors can do this. A computer designer can explain how this hardware problem is handled.

We humans do the same thing with our brains except that no one really knows how we do it. Do we actually have distributed processing? Do we have multi-core processor brains?

Is the number of processes we can handle a matter of training and education? Probably so. Yet even the most intelligent of us reaches a point where we are overwhelmed, and can no longer think of different things at the same time.

This writer began this article with the firm conviction that human multi-tasking was a concept that dwelt in the minds of wishful thinkers. During the research and assembling of this article he has begun to accept that it does exist and is in constant, but limited, use during the day to day lives of many people.

The concept of multi-tasking, though, is greatly misunderstood by those people who claim to use it. After all the research, this writer now thinks that the two concepts of thought, parallel processing and multi-tasking, do exist and operate together within the brain. They are complementary and supplementary facets of an organ which is still not understood very well.

One day we may understand how all of this works. That may be the day when our computer scientists make an enormous multicore processor that thinks like a human.

This article was reprinted from a different site. Commentary may be added.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Guest Editorial or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Great article as always. I'd highly recommend reading the book, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg. He has an excellent explanation of how we are able to actually multitask on certain activities. I think you'll find he proves that we can multitask on activities that have locked in neural pathways. We do it all the time, we can read and breathe simultaneously - right?!

On computers, today's computers actually multitask by using parallel processing. Even with the speed they have the volume of tasks would bottle neck if it was completely linear. By using parallel processing microprocessors can in fact execute certain commands simultaneously.

December 4, 2017 3:35 PM
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