Are you a master Twitterer? Do your friends or kids punch their PDAs while eating and driving? I could swear my teenager was texting in her sleep.
A new study suggests that constant texters may be sacrificing accuracy for expediency. One of the convenient features of our handhelds - the program that figures out the word we want to use before we finish typing it - maybe be part of the problem. And, the new research suggests that frequent texting may even rewire the brains of young people.
Dr. Michael Abramson and associates, an epidemiologist at Monash Universtiy in Melbourne, Australia studied over 300children aged 11 to 14 and found that kids who used mobile phones performed faster on a battery of cognitive tests but they also made significantly more errors. The bottom line is that frequent use of the devices makes kids fast and sloppy.
This is likely a problem for middle-aged and older digital immigrants as well. Todays' rapid pace of information constantly assaulting our brains challenges our ability to pay full attention to any one thing. Our laptops, fax machines and instant messages pressure us into quick responses that lead us to sacrifice detail and accuracy. Radio and television announcers speak in time-compressed sentences leaving us with mere ideas of what they have said. Many people are replacing depth and subtlety in their thinking with quick mental facts that only skim the surface. The mental clutter, noise and frequent interruptions that assail most of us further fuel this frenetic cognitive style.
Though we think we can get more done when we divide our attention and multitask, we are not necessarily being more efficient. Studies show that when our brains switch back and forth from one task to another, our neural circuits take a small break in between - a time-consuming process that reduces efficiency. It's not unlike closing down one computer program and booting up another - it takes a few moments. With each attention shift, the brain's frontal lobe executive centers must activate different neural circuits.
Dr. Gloria Mark and associates at the University of California, Irvine, studied the work habits of high-tech office employees and found that each worker spent an average of only 11 minutes per project. Every time a worker was distracted from a task, it took them 25 minutes to return to it. Such distractions and interruptions not only plague our work environments, but they also intrude upon our leisure and family time. The bottom line is that despite people's perception that they are doing more and at a faster pace when they multitask, the brain seems to work better when implementing a single sustained task, one at a time.
Some particular combinations of tasks, however, do appear to improve mental efficiency. This included performing a task while also listening to music. Neuroscientists have found that some surgeons perform stressful non-surgical laboratory tasks more quickly and with increased accuracy when listening to their preferred musical selections. Music appears to enhance the efficiency of those who work with their hands. Music and manual tasks activate completely different parts of the brain; thus, effective multitasking sometimes appears to involve disparate brain regions. However, if you are working while listening to music you do not like, it may be distracting and decrease the efficiency of your multitasking.
Multitasking has become a necessary skill of modern life, but we need to acknowledge the challenges and adapt accordingly. Several strategies can help, such as striving to stay on one task longer, and avoiding task switching whenever possible. We can also learn and build multitasking skills with practice.
Dr. Gary Small is co-author with Gigi Vorgan of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," and author of "The Memory Bible." For more information, visit DrGarySmall.com.