Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gappy Information and the Multi-Tasking Illusion

I've been thinking about multi-tasking. I've never believed in it, never thought I saw anyone doing it well, or even actually really doing it. Never could do it well myself, anyway. Lately there's been a lot of talk about new research that shows how poorly multi-tasking works in comparison to doing one thing at a time. I like hearing that talk, of course, because it agrees with my already-formed opinion. But it's a subject that would interest me even if the research were saying I was wrong.

One reason I've been thinking about multi-tasking is that I've noticed people doing it around me a lot. I sit with friends at restaurants while they talk on their phones and answer e-mails at the same time they're talking to me. I feel like I'm sensing more often the distinctive "temporary stupidity" effect that occurs when someone is quietly checking and answering their e-mails while they're talking to me on the phone. Another reason multi-tasking has been on my mind is that it's in the news a lot. For example, there seem to be more and more stories about people getting killed by multi-tasking drivers of cars.

Another big reason I'm thinking about multi-tasking is that I've been making some changes to my life lately and I've noticed that a lot of the changes involve banishing multi-tasking from my daily experience. When I noticed that I was trying to banish it, I started thinking about it. Ironic.

My main conclusion so far is that multi-tasking is actually an illusion. A very convincing and vividly real-seeming illusion, but an illusion. And the reason that the illusion is so very vivid and real is that our consciousness is pretty much built to create the exact kind of illusion that allows us to falsely think we're multi-tasking.

The information coming to our minds through our senses is gappy, discontinuous, fragmented. Loud sounds interrupt conversations, but we comprehend and talk on. Beer salesmen and other fans pass in front of our eyes as we watch a baseball game, but we disregard the momentary gaps in our vision and continue to understand and enjoy the game. Even more basic, our eyes are constantly blinking shut, interrupting our flow of visual information, but we remain happily unaware of these brief moments of darkness.

Similarly, our actions throughout our days are constantly interrupted by sounds and sights that require attention. The doorbell rings during a conversation with a visitor; I get up, answer the door, sign the UPS driver's tablet, sit back down and continue the conversation. It's as though there were no interruption at all. The coffee which I put on the stove before I sat down to breakfast with my wife and daughters begins to boil; I get up, pour two cups of coffee, bring them to the table and resume eating my eggs, nearly unaware of the act.

So, our minds gather all of this gappy, discontinuous information from many different channels. And yet our consciousness feels smooth and continuous. If someone asked me about my breakfast I wouldn't say, "I ate two eggs for a few minutes, then was interrupted by the coffee boiling, then sat down and resumed eating my eggs and drinking my newly made coffee." I'd just say, "I had fried eggs and coffee," and the statement would feel complete and true.

For many years, I've been reading as much as I can about consciousness and what it is, and one theme returns again and again: one of the main functions of consciousness is to create and sustain for us an illusion of smoothness and continuity in our minute-by-minute experience, even when our senses are receiving interrupted, unrelated, or even contradictory signals. This feeling of smoothness may be an illusion, but it is a very useful one. It allows us to make sense of our actions and sensations, it allows us to maintain a coherent story as the sometimes confusing and contradictory information flows to us through our senses.

My impression is that when we multi-task (or think we are multi-tasking), we are engaging our minds' capacity to create this illusion, and then mistaking that illusion for reality. It's a misappropriation of our minds' capacity to create continuity from fragments. We are doing several things, spinning several threads, each in a discontinuous and gappy way, but our minds obligingly provide for us the illusion that each of these threads is discontinuous, unbroken; that we're doing all of these things continuously at once. We think we are multi-tasking when we are actually serial-tasking - attending to one thing at a time, each one in a choppy and discontinuous way.

Thus the sensation that we could still be "working on" the driving of a car during the same time in which we are reading a text message from a friend. Yes, we do feel very vividly that we are "still paying attention" to the road during those gaps, but that is because our minds are built to create just that illusion in our experience.

The illusion of smoothness and continuity isn't fully formed in us from birth. It develops and is refined over time. For example, a baby panics when its mother walks away to the next room. It's as if she has vanished from reality. But as the baby's consciousness develops, it learns to believe that Mom is "still there" even though she is out of sight. (Once this lesson is learned, it is a source of pleasure: when our mother hides behind a tree, we can delight in the magical feeling of knowing she's there even while not seeing her, and enjoy the suspense of testing our little theory - Yes! I found you!)

Or when we speak with a friend on the phone and the reception begins to deteriorate, we can keep the conversation going even through huge gaps in the transmission. In fact it takes a pretty radically bad connection to force us to give up and shout, "I'll call you back later!" We are able to take that interrupted sound information and either fill in the gaps with probable words, or if the gaps are too long, we just accept the gaps and stay in a suspended state, feeling that the next sentence might fill in the context and the gappy sentence will eventually make sense.

Films take advantage of this ability of our minds in a wonderful way - we can watch a scene which leaps from one character's speaking face to the other character's listening face and back, then to another wider view of the restaurant in which they are sitting, then to the image of the waiter carrying a tray of food through the swinging door of the restaurant kitchen, and then back to the faces of the two characters as they continue to talk. The sound of the film changes radically with each edit. And yet we don't think of this scene as a jarring series of unconnected pieces of information. We think of it as "the scene where the two characters are talking in the restaurant." The gappy information feels smooth.

Now, this creation of smoothness out of gappiness is really useful. Imagine if every time someone walked into the next room, you were suddenly unsure whether or not they still existed? How could you plan for the future if you couldn't assume the continuous existence of, say, your spouse, who has merely walked into the next room? 

Also, imagine if you were unable to hold a conversation in a loud party where lots of other people were talking loudly around you. Or if you were unable to speak to someone during a series of brief but very loud interruptions. For example, what if you couldn't understand the lyrics of a song because a kick drum kept interrupting and briefly obscuring the sound of the singer's voice, as it does at any rock show and on lots of great records. (I would be particularly sad if I couldn't listen to singing while there was a drummer drumming.)

But when this illusion becomes unhelpful is when we engage it while trying to "save time" by doing several things at once. I spoke recently with a friend about this and he told me that sometimes he finds that he's "missed" the last couple of minutes of a phone call because he's been checking his e-mails on his cell phone while talking on the phone. "The weird part is that I'll be thinking I'm paying attention to the conversation but I suddenly realize that I have no idea what the other person has been saying. I find myself then listening carefully to what they say next, to try to get some clue or hint to what they've been talking about. That at least reduces the chances of my saying something irrelevant and looking like a jackass."

And of course it becomes a matter of life or death when the drivers around us on the highway are reading their e-mail, operating scanners and printers and thumbing text messages while driving, happy in the illusion that they've been watching the road during the same two minutes in which they've been feeding papers into the scanner. The blithe look on the face of the woman talking on her cell phone who recently sailed through a red light a few feet from my car was the happy face of someone having a very nice and involving conversation. But she obviously wasn't as aware of the world around her as I would have liked her to be.

In my life as a songwriter the temptation to believe in the multi-tasking illusion is not physically dangerous, but it's dangerous to the writing. It's so tempting to go from looking at the online rhyming dictionary to a quick peek at my e-mail or the front page of the New York Times' website. These seem like harmless and brief interruptions, and of course given the way our minds smooth over interruptions and gaps, they almost seem like no interruption at all.

But achieving the state of mind necessary for creativity is like lighting a match. Sometimes it's like lighting the match between cupped hands on a windy day. And it's not always easy to re-light it when the match is allowed to go out.

When I'm writing a song, I need uninterrupted time during which I have nothing else important to do and nothing else important to think about but music. Maybe you can, but I can't multi-task and be a songwriter. The minute I get on the phone and discuss something important or stressful or complicated or even something which engages my problem-solving mind, the songwriting flame flickers or goes out. The minute I open my e-mail application on the computer, the flame goes out. And it takes another half hour for me to get that fragile flame lit again, if I even can. 

And we all know why people multi-task in the first place; extra half-hours are rare and precious in information-age America, year of 2009.

In a future entry, I'll write about the kind of distractions and interruptions that help me write songs. Perhaps I'll talk about parenthood and multi-tasking too.


daisylilysun said...

I've lately been volunteering in special education (7-12 grade), and a big goal in that environment is to reduce distractions, so they have no mp3, no cell phone, and they are not allowed to talk to eachother when they are supposedly reading. This is actually a type of discipline we hope can translate into self-discipline, but I'm sure it comes across as old fashioned. Not only is it cool to multi-task, it as addicting.

kate said...

Have you ever read anything by A.J. Jacobs? He's a writer who has done all sorts of self-experiments and one of them was called The Unitasker. It's relevant an you might find it interesting.

Article here:

smussyolay said...

this is really helpful to me. i'm going to be endeavoring to be writing a lot more and i think i need to remember to leave the tweeting and facebooking and googling and ... and .. and .... ing for another time. i need to just leave writing time for writing time if i'm going to be successful at really creating anything instead of just finding another three hours slipping away in front of the computer without really accomplishing anything.

thanks for the reminder.

Marisa said...

Dan...I could not have ready this at a better time...thank you so much.