Posted by: Suresh S | February 19, 2009

Is human multitasking a myth?

What’s the most common topic of a luncheon with your team mates in the cafeteria? If you ask me, I would say, “Office ki baatein!”

Even though there are exceptions, most of you would agree with me on this. It rarely happens that people come out of the hang over of their projects and discuss wordly matters like, “Would Slum dog still have gotten any nominations, had it been directed by an Indian director?” blah blah blah…

A colleague of mine made it very clear to all of us today that we shouldn’t discuss about project or office, at least during lunch. Guess what? People hardly found a topic to discuss! Then he remarked, “You see that. We take off this office thing out of our regular talk, and we hardly have anything to talk. How sad! Isn’t it?”  Hold on. If that was all that had happened today, I wouldn’t be writing this post. We did talk. Rather, we debated!

The topic – Is human multitasking a myth?

I frankly don’t know. But I got to witness a good debate. Here is how both the parties went about proposing their theories. After sharing both their views [with matching alternate examples], I have proposed my take on the same subject.

Theory 1: Human multitasking is a myth. Period! [I subscribe to it.]

This arguement basically stems from a notion which firmly believes that if a task on hand isn’t given due attention while performing and the doer of the task, indulges in a parallel activity at the same time, while the first task is still in progress, he/she cannot do justice to either of the tasks.

Eg: If you are looking into an issue and ‘debugging’ it. You are deeply engrossed in it. But at the same time you are also ‘listening to your favourite music’. These are two different tasks. The objective behind both the activities are different. While the former aims to come out with an RCA, the latter is purely intended at enjoying the music.

Now as per the above theory, one wouldn’t be able to do justice to either of the tasks, ‘debugging’ or ‘listening to favourite music’, since he/she is always losing some time/energy in ‘context switching’. Yeah, that’s the word. Your mind, simply fools you. Since the context switching happens so fast and so frequently, you are ‘made to believe’ that you are actually ‘listening [not hearing] to your favourite music’ and ‘debugging’, both at the same time. If your mind were to be compared to a CPU, it would never be able to ‘process’ two or more different tasks at the same time. Hence, at any given time you are either ‘listening to favourite music’ or ‘debugging’, but never both at the same time. Period!

Theory 2: Human multitasking is a fact. Period! [I can’t disprove it!]

This argument basically stems from the notion or rather from the experiences we have on a day-to-day basis. We do so many things [or tasks] ‘simultaneously’ on a regular basis. Don’t we? If that isn’t multitasking, what is it?

Eg: Let’s say that you come back home from the office  and start off with your routine activity. Let’s say cooking. When you are in the middle of preparing to cook [let’s say chopping the vegetables] you get a call from a friend of yours. You pick up the call and start speaking with him/her [let’s assume that the cell phone is on speaker mode, to facilitate you in proceeding with the task of preparing to cook]. On a very practical note, aren’t you doing both the tasks at the same time? Or are you stopping the chopping activity for a few seconds, speak and then back to chopping, so on and so forth? I don’t think so.

Now that brings me to a point where I would like to place my take on the subject. I am sure you too can relate to it.

Let’s take the first example. Whilst you are ‘debugging’ and ‘listening to your favourite music’ at the same time, you continue to do so as long as your heading towards an RCA ‘smoothly’, without any hiccups. But if you happen to get stuck at one point and it appears as though that that issue on hand is actually more complex than it appeared in the beginning, I am sure you would put a full stop the task of ‘listening to your favourite music’ and really begin to pay ‘full attention’ to the task of  ‘debugging’. Won’t you?

In the second example, while you are ‘chopping vegetables’ and ‘speaking to a friend of yours’, you continue to do both the tasks at the some time, as long as he/she shares something ‘out of the blue’. The moment the discussion over the phone  switches to something that catches you off guard [or takes you by surprise or interests you more than cooking], you literally stop ‘chopping the vegetables’ and ‘pay full attention’ to the other person on the call. Won’t you?

Now what happened suddenly. Did your mind [or brain] suddenly lose its gift to multitask? Why did you put a full stop to ‘Listening to your favourite music’ task? Why did you stop ‘chopping the vegetables’ task all of a sudden and ‘start paying full attention’ to the other person on the call? Is multitasking more to do with the task in itself? Has it got anything to do with the priority of the task? These are questions we should be bothered about.

The bottom line of the debate is, it’s all in your mind. If your mind [or brain :)] feels that you can ‘handle’ both the tasks [which you presume,  hold equal priority] at the same time, it is as good as saying that your mind is able to ‘synthesize the information’ required to carry out a task in a way that makes you ‘feel as good as multitasking’. But once a task demands larger ‘bandwidth’ of your mind, you mind has to ‘re-allocate’ the resource [which reflects in you turning off the music or stopping  the chopping the vegetables] to the task with a higher priority.

If you ask me now, “Is human multitasking a myth?”, I would say, “It depends!”

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Responses

  1. Very very interesting!
    But I wouldn’t take either sides. There are times where you can multitask and there are times when you can’t

    You can’t listen to music/watch tv while studying… But you can do so while cooking
    I’m just saying that you can multi task in circumstances where neither of the tasks require complete attention and will kill you if you don’t give it your best.
    As you said, it’s all in the mind… If you believe you can, then you can. But if the task’s really important then there’s no point taking the risk…

  2. @ Niveditha,

    It depends is all I can say:) BTW I loved ur post [ur first work on fiction]. Please post more of it.

  3. oooh! Thanks! 🙂 🙂 🙂


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