Multitaskers—Give It A Rest

We know from personal experience and from recent studies that multitasking while driving is a bad idea. Cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and the like just don’t mix with driving. People talking on cell phones while driving are as dangerous as people who are legally drunk. People who are texting are much more dangerous. Multitasking outside of cars, however, is a different story. We’ve all been told that the ability to process multiple streams of information, most of it digital, is the wave of the future. Teenagers and young adults, we are told, have developed the ability to do homework, browse the Web, listen to music, watch television, and instant message simultaneously, packing so much more into every hour than we old-school unitaskers. It’s not just the younger generation. We see it in meetings all the time—the surreptitious hunched shoulders, the bowed head, the hands cupped together just beneath the level of the tabletop fools no one any more. Catching up on e-mails or checking the score of an important game while someone else presents has become standard operating procedure. Guess what? It doesn’t work. The Aug. 30 New York Times carried a story on “The Mediocre Multitasker” that led: “Read it and gloat. Last week, researchers at Stanford University published a study showing that the most persistent multitaskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. They don’t focus as well as non-multitaskers. They’re more distractable. They’re weaker at shifting from one task to another and at organizing information. They are, as a matter of fact, worse at multitasking than people who don’t ordinarily multitask.” The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106) and carried out by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. The researchers write: “In an ever-more saturated media environment, media multitasking—a person’s consumption of more than one item or stream of content at the same time—is becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, especially among the young.” While researchers have studied the effects of multitasking on memory, learning, and cognitive functioning, they continue, “it is unknown whether and how chronic heavy multitaskers process information differently than individuals who do not frequently multitask.” Chronic multitaskers do process information differently. They do it badly. The research definitively shows that multitaskers “have greater difficulty filtering out irrelevant stimuli from their environment … they are less likely to ignore irrelevant representations in memory … and they are less effective in suppressing the activation of irrelevant task sets. This last result is particularly striking given the central role attributed to task-switching in multitasking.” So, multitaskers, try focusing! ACS National Elections This week’s issue, which at 112 pages is the longest issue of C&EN this year, contains a wealth of important and interesting stories. There is Senior Editor Lisa Jarvis’ cover story on RNA drug delivery; Senior Editor Glenn Hess’s examination of how new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may vote on cases of importance to the chemistry enterprise; several stories from the recent ACS national meeting; C&EN’s annual “Education Supplement,” which looks at nontraditional paths to a chemistry degree; and much more. Also in this issue are the candidate statements for the elections to ACS national offices. There are three outstanding candidates for ACS president-elect in Nancy B. Jackson, Cheryl A. Martin, and Mary Virginia Orna. Residents of District I and District V will choose two members of the ACS Board of Directors, and councilors will choose two at-large members of the board. I urge you to read all of the statements—even those of candidates you are not eligible to vote for—because they get to the heart of what ACS is about. And I also urge you to exercise your privilege to vote. Ballots go out during the week of Sept. 28. When you receive your ballot, don’t put it aside. Vote! Either by mail or electronically—which I can attest is incredibly quick and easy to do. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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