A recent research runs on the internet stating that “women need to sleep longer than men because they are multitasking“, (yet another neologism that comes into vogue in society, but coined by computer science, which indicates “the ability of machines to perform more functions simultaneously“). So women use their brains more intensely than men.
“This is the result of a survey by the British University of Loughborough”, which however noted this need “even in men who make many decisions during the day, so it is not a question solely related to gender. But it is true that the lack of sleep causes an enormous amount of side effects in women: aggressiveness, nervousness and danger of depression”.
In short, the stereotype of “knowing how to do more things together”, once assigned to women because they are “forced to juggle work and family”, and once to men because “they have so many responsibilities on them” (but perhaps the women’s stereotype wins in diffusion), it is generally seen as a quality, albeit tiring. So the two sexes have been competing for years for the recognition of who is the most multitasking (one of the qualities of today’s leaders). Now at least they have both been recognized…
…too bad that we are not machines, and therefore the infamous multitasking does not actually exist neither for women nor men.
“No one can do two things at the same time“, Nick Chater had already demonstrated in 2013, professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School, unless he/she is a highly trained juggler or the activity is “almost automatic, such as driving while listening to the radio”. The Italian newspaper Il Sole24ore reported the simple experiment as proof that Chater had shown in his program aired on the BBC, The Human Zoo, asking the presenter a question while they were walking, and he, like many others tested before him, stopped to answer. And Chater just asked him what the Tanzanian capital was: “even when we try to remember something, we have to stop doing something else. Mental and physical energy are more connected than we imagine”.
So the myth of multitasking itself is based on nothing: today “we are doing the work of 10 different people, while trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and also our favorite TV programs”. From the outside, being able to do everything may seem a capacity for superior beings, in reality we should try to avoid these exhausting performances. Not only human multitasking does not exist, but doing something daily that tries to get closer to it even hurts us both in a physical and cognitive way, both for women and men. And this is what we should say about multitasking.
The kind of hyper-frenetic life full of stimuli in which we are immersed makes our attention weak, let alone the concentration: so when we work on a goal we struggle twice to get the same result. Until we don’t get it at all, if we give in to excessive effort.
As early as a year ago, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin examined the “side effects” of the stimuli overload from emails, text messages and social media. Director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, he is the author of the book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. He published an article on The Guardian in which he argued that “when people think to do multitasking, in reality they are only moving from one task to another very quickly. And every time they do it, there is a cognitive cost” (and also metabolic). The type of rapid, continuous and alternating movement “causes the brain to burn the oxygenated glucose”, which is its necessary fuel for concentration, “so quickly, that we feel exhausted and disoriented even after a short time. And even if we think we are doing a lot of things, ironically, multitasking makes us clearly less efficient”. A very real illusion.
An illusion even fueled by a form of dependence that is entirely internal to the brain: “we have seen that multitasking increases the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and adrenaline, the fight-or-flight one, which can confuse thought”, (and here it is also explained why we all become more or less nervous). Answering the phone, searching for something on the internet, checking e-mail, sending a text message: as soon as each of these actions has been carried out, the brain releases dopamine in response, the pleasant sensation we feel when we think we have completed a task we had to do. But are we sure that answering social media was a task we had to do? “A completely unknown task only 15 seconds earlier”? The brain is not able to distinguish between objectives and “incursions”, and thus, every day repeatedly, a real vicious circle of dopamine dependence is created which leads it to reward itself every time it loses concentration or seeks external stimuli”.
The worst part is that it is not necessary to act, the thought is enough: yet in 2005 Glenn Wilson, former professor of Psychology at Gresham College in London, argued that even just knowing that you have pending “messages” can be harmful to the cognitive performance. He called it infomania and according to him it makes us less intelligent: “his research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task and you have an e-mail not read in the inbox, can reduce the effective Intellectual Quotient by 10 points“. As a term of reference he called in marijuana, to claim that the cognitive losses of multitasking are greater. Indeed, writing that “cannabinol interferes profoundly with our ability to concentrate on several things at the same time“, almost seeming to confirm it as a drastic remedy for those wishing to detox from multitasking!
And why then is remembering so hard? Today we all seem so confused and forgetful. Probably having media that tells you everything you want to know 24 hours per day allows the brain to work much less. In addition, the process of learning under multitasking conveys information to the wrong part of the brain: “for example, if students study and watch TV at the same time, the information acquired by their tasks is directed to the striated body, a region specialized in memorization of new procedures and competences, not new facts and ideas“, says Levitin. “Without the distraction of TV, instead, information reaches the hippocampus, where it is organized and classified in a variety of ways, making it easier to recover them“.
Then there is the problem of the decisions to be taken that in multitasking obviously become more, and with them the uncertainty, that naturally accompanies them, becomes more profound. “Decision making also has an impact on neural resources and small decisions seem to take as much energy as big ones“. At that point, due to an overload of decisions not particularly important, a state of cerebral impoverishment can be triggered leading to the risk, during time, “to decide badly about something important“.
Mice locked up in laboratories showed it very well, but it was sufficient the reading of the first chilling news stories about gamblers who let themselves die of hunger and fatigue, unable to break away from the game. For them, as for the mice with inserted electrodes, only one area of the brain was always activated, the nucleus accumbens, “the center of pleasure”: “this is the structure that regulates the production of dopamine and always ‘lights up’ when gamblers win a bet, addicts take cocaine or when you have an orgasm“. The pleasure that, if distorted and amplified, leads to its own destruction.
In short, the multitasking intended as the feeling to have and have to do many things in a short time, seems to be only a damnation. Each task deserves its attention and concentration, more or less large. Only the machines have “the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously: for example, if the system is asked to run two processes A and B, the CPU will run them for a few moments alternately until they finish. The transition from one to the other is called context switch“. For some it is here that multitasking can be understood in another way: without frenzy and rapid alternation, “changing context” could easily be a new capacity for the mind, perhaps essential nowadays, being able to take it beyond the fossilization of “stereotypes” and using itself in a way that is finally transversal: from multitasking,” this modern constraint dictated by the times, we can draw a positive philosophical lesson, obtaining an existential method capable of educating thought, transforming the hysterical rhythm of doing into a cultural elasticity”.