One thing at a time
By Harry Eyres
Published: October 17 2009 00:46 | Last updated: October 17 2009 00:46
A reader once wrote to me asking for advice about multitasking. I replied, truthfully if a trifle pompously, that multitasking was not a word that featured in my vocabulary. What I meant to convey was not just a preference – multitasking was not my cup of tea – but a deeper sense that there was really something quite wrong-headed about this apparently common and current term. So the findings of a group of researchers from Stanford University, showing that multitasking is a sure recipe for incompetence, pleased but did not surprise me.
Apparently the results, published on August 24 in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, did surprise the researchers themselves. Professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues began the project assuming that multitaskers possessed an enviable gift. When he discovered that “multitaskers were lousy at everything” it came as “a complete and total shock” to the professor. It turned out not just that multitaskers were not good at multitasking, but that they were bad at focusing, remembering and switching from one task to another.
I suppose the idea that being able to do, say, three things at once might just seem better than just doing one thing at a time. But it seems dangerous to assume that what works in the realm of juggling – clearly being able to juggle just one ball is no achievement at all – should hold good in other spheres.
I used to teach a theatre course to American undergraduates, which included a showing of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André, the film in which the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn and the theatre director André Gregory spend 90 minutes in a Manhattan restaurant talking about art and life. During one showing I noticed that several students were writing postcards (this was before the days of texting). Eventually I paused the tape and suggested to them that the film deserved their full attention.
At the time I was bemused not just by their insistence that they could perfectly well watch the film and write a postcard at the same time, but by their air of aggrieved innocence or injured pride. Now, having heard Prof Nass speak about his findings, I realise that I was casting aspersions on their ability to multitask.
Maybe it is worth pausing here and spelling out just why I thought and still think it is not possible to write a postcard and watch My Dinner with André at the same time. Writing a postcard, strange as it may sound, requires your complete attention. It requires the directing of imaginative sympathy towards the recipient, a kind of long-distance tuning. A postcard written by a robot would not be a postcard you would want to receive; if it did not say “wish you were here”, it would consist of some other lame or inappropriate formula, because only a being employing the full human powers of mind and heart can write a postcard worth the stamp.
Watching a film, still more obviously, is not something you can do with half an eye, or half a heart. Every frame, every word, in a properly made film, has something to say to you. In the case of My Dinner with André, you are drawn into a conversation of epic intensity; only by imaginatively taking the place of Shawn, by having your own dinner with the outrageous and mesmerising Gregory, can you follow him on his crazed quest for authentic experience, for an Artaudian theatre that is as much an experiment in living as an artistic project. The film is not easy to watch, and offers no hiding place.
Unconsciously, I think, my multitasking students were operating a strategy of avoidance. Multitasking may be not so much about efficiency or productivity as a kind of flinching from full emotional and intellectual engagement with the task in hand.
My criticism of the Stanford study is that it was too limited in scope. Prof Nass and his co-researchers used only rather crude cognitive methods, testing whether their human guinea-pigs could recognise and remember different-coloured shapes, letters and numbers. This is only the tip of the iceberg, or does not get very close to the heart of the human. Deciding how well a subject was engaging with the imaginative world of a great work of art or with another person, while fiddling with a mobile or a BlackBerry, would clearly require a different kind of testing altogether.
Ultimately the problem of multitasking is not so much a cognitive one as an emotional and ethical one. It is certainly possible to drive a car and listen to a Beethoven symphony at the same time, because driving a car demands certain physical skills but does not involve any emotional engagement. Trying to listen to a Beethoven symphony and simultaneously speak to someone on the phone is neither possible nor right. By driving ourselves to distraction, attempting to juggle tasks each of which requires our full attention, we will ultimately drive others to distraction as well.