The ability to multi-task is something most of us proudly list on our resumes, but efficiently completing a number of tasks at the same time and splitting our attention in multiple ways are two very different things.
By Sumei FitzGerald
Eating, texting and driving, checking email and scoping out tweets as you look up important business figures while planning how to get the kids to soccer. You’re doing it all at the same time, right?
Some researchers believe that because of technology we’re becoming an increasingly shallow and fragmented race; others believe that our brains are evolving in ways we cannot yet appreciate. Looking at our brain’s rewiring as an evolutionary step may be the optimistic yet realistic choice, especially considering that we now check emails and change computer windows about 37 times a day, visit an average of 40 websites a day and consume 12 hours of media every day, often more than one simultaneously.
We don’t really do five things at once: we shift our attention rapidly between them. And honestly, at this point, most of us “digital immigrants” don’t really switch between tasks as well as those who do less (although we all think we do.) In our society today, every email ding and newsflash can command our attention as strongly as attending to our children’s dinners or reading that important work memo. And turning that Smartphone off? Never! What if we miss out on something? That sense is a clear sign that you’re part of Generation M, or Generation Multitask.
What some scientists believe is that we’re losing the ability to concentrate on any one thing, think deeply, or reflect. Some believe that children growing up as “digital natives,” immersed in such a constant incoming-information environment, will develop increased problems with attention and impulse-control. On the other hand, novelist Naomi Alderman remarks that,
“If we’ve lost something by not reading 10 books on one subject, we’ve probably gained as much by being able to link together ideas easily from 10 different disciplines.”
Author of “In Defense of Distraction” Sam Anderson agrees. Kids can already conduct juggling feats with tasks and information that their elders can’t even imagine accomplishing. He thinks kids today may “have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new.” Educational visionary Marc Prensky believes that video games offer challenge, stimulation and experiential interaction that can change the way we learn. Rather than dumbing us down, such technology can be incorporated into school curriculum’s to engage kids’ attention and make use of the way they share ideas on digital networks. Dr. Gary Small, author of “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,” suggests that “Rather than catching digital ADD, many of us are developing neural circuitry that is customized to rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration.”
The rewiring of our brains and the Internet isn’t a one-way street; we influence the development and “rewiring” of the Internet as much as it influences us.
Futurologist Jamais Cascio remarks that “The trouble isn’t that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy…many of these technologies…were developed precisely to help us get some control over a flood of data and ideas. Google isn’t the problem—it’s the beginning of a solution.” He claims that the Internet is, in fact, a “liberating extension” of our minds.
While some people react in horror to the idea that the Internet and our brains are co-evolving, as if we are becoming less human and more cyborg, such interaction and interdependence is certainly just what is reflected in nature every day. Evolution is the natural way. It is relentless and unfathomable. As Steven Yantis of Johns Hopkins remarks,
“The bottom line is: the brain is wired to adapt.”
And who knows? We may yet marry breadth and depth and end up using more than the 10 percent of our brains that we normally use. Our neural pathways may be just stretching out before they extend down to take root.
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