Some are born to it, some acquire it, and some run screaming in the opposite direction when confronted with it. I’m referring of course to MT, or for those who have been single-mindedly focused elsewhere, ‘multi-tasking’.
Leading the first category is my sister-in-law, an inveterate multi-tasker. She will be having tea with her parents, chatting on the phone with a friend, directing the housekeeper, and asking her husband in the next room what he’s up to. My daughter has acquired the trait over the years. As a toddler she used to withdraw when faced with any intense activity, such as a busy airport or even a group of children. Now she’s developed to a stage where she feels rejuvenated in a vibrant big-city setting, and like many 8th graders, does homework with one eye on Facebook and one ear on her mobile. I fall firmly into the last category: I cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. A sign of a dull mind? Or a sheltered childhood? Or an introverted personality? One question at a time please.
Over the years there have been many studies on MT and they all say essentially the same thing: MT reduces efficiency. MT is actually the switching of attention between tasks. When we do it, we require time to re-focus and re-engage in each different task. And more importantly, we don’t retain learnings as well from any of them. One study even linked MT to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, pointing to possible future health problems. Many experts have expressed concern over how MT may be adversely affecting our children and their education.
However, educationalist Ken Robinson does not agree. He says intelligence and creativity are interactive and multi-disciplinary, and goes further to link them to the trait of MT. He also says that women are better at MT because their corpus callosum – the cord of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain – is thicker. You don’t need to look at any working mother’s corpus callosum to realize that MT is their strength, as they juggle work, kids, and home.
So there seems an elemental divide between the haves and have-nots, those that enjoy watching one movie from beginning to end versus those who watch three shows by switching channels during the ads, those who read one book from start to finish versus those who read three at a time in bits and bytes, those with namby-pamby corpus callosums versus those with hearty robust ones.
We talk of MT as though it’s a new menace but I wonder if that is really so. The trait of MT could have evolved over time based on the survival of the fittest theory. The cave woman who survived was the one who could watch the fire, forage for food, and ensure her offspring didn’t get eaten. The lady of the court who thrived was the one who could walk without getting her multiple petticoats in a knot, make scintillating conversation, and keep an ear on the castle intrigue. A classic but somewhat more modern case is of the Indian civil servant, although this calls the concept of progressive evolution into question. He’ll politely invite you into his office and there you will wait indefinitely to get one stamp on one form, while he has his tea, takes phone calls, and talks to the two others who have jumped the queue because they are his wife’s brother’s doctor’s neighbours. MT may be fine when you’re doing it, but when you’re having it done to you, it’s just MI: mucho irritating.
And today, we continue to MT, doing the same tasks but just with more technology. The teen girl of yesteryear used to daydream about the cute guy in math class and wonder what was on TV that evening, while doing her science homework. The teen girl of today pokes the guy on Facebook and watches that episode of Ugly Betty on the internet, while doing her science homework. Technology has given her the ability to actually do several things at once, but I wonder if that means that she should. I watch with concern as my daughter and her generation MT their way through homework and into their future.
But I don’t entirely blame them. With more and more interesting things to do each day and less time to do it in, MT seems a natural outcome. Some person, obviously from the category of intrepid multi-taskers, said, “If you can’t ride two horses at the same time, you shouldn’t be in the circus.” Well, today we are all in a circus and it has several rings. Given the dizzying array of options available to us and the frantic busyness of our lives, there may be no other way than MT. And MT may be an equally or more valued skill tomorrow, not just for the mother of five, the air-traffic controller, or the taxi driver on the harrowing streets of Delhi, but for professions that are as yet unknown.
Instead of fearing or fighting MT, we need to accept that it’s a trait of the future and it’s here to stay. We need to figure out how to work with it. Academics are also shifting their focus and taking a more proactive view. One study published earlier this year showed that training can improve our ability to MT. We also need to learn to MT in ways that don’t reduce our learning nor our efficiency: we need strategies for effective MT. These may be the next lines of research. And ones that may be quite hopeful and useful for those of us currently standing on the sidelines, green with corpus callosum envy.
(An edited version of this article was previously published as an op-ed in the Internatonal Herald Tribune and the New York Times)