Your cellphone beeps — you grab it to read the new text. A ding from your computer alerts you to a Facebook post and you check that before you've finished texting.
Switching among devices seems natural; it’s certainly how many people live. But juggling all this technology comes at a cost.
Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains what happens with device multitasking as part of the series “Digital Divide.”
Does using devices change how the brain functions?
Well, yes and no. I mean any experience you have changes your brain.
Your experiences change your brain and when you change your brain you think in different ways. Devices aren’t different than other experiences.
There are downsides to using devices. We are too superficial and we are constantly changing what we pay attention to.
Why do devices so easily distract people?
Our brains find information rewarding.
The human brain evolved in an environment when there was much less information. Any potential information could be helpful … a rustling [of grass] could be a tiger.
We are in a very different environment than the one we evolved in. Our brains weren’t designed for all this information. Yet our brains want to seek out all this information even though it is maladaptive.
Why is multitasking a problem?
Our brain has a very limited bandwidth to process new information. It can handle a very small number of thoughts at one time.
We are only good at doing one thing at a time. But we are switching back and forth. It takes time for our brain to change from one task to another.
Switch cost is when it takes your brain a short while … to realign for a new task.
Your brain has to backtrack and figure out where it was in the first place.
Why do we think we are better at multitasking than we really are?
It is a huge rationalization fest. People aren’t good at multitasking.
People who think they are the best at multitasking, they are actually the worst. People can’t help but multitask and are distracted by devices and screens. They can’t help themselves and rationalize to themselves that they are good at it.
What are some ways to combat digital distractions?
You can’t rely on your own willpower to focus because of the brain’s thirst for knowledge.
Devote a period of time when you are turning off the Internet. You have to plan ahead to remove distractions and focus.
Focus on one thing at a time. If I am writing a paper and working and I am checking my email every minute, I am incurring a switch cost every minute.
If I check every hour it is less. The less the better.
I know all these things and I am as guilty as anyone else.