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Like me, you also believe you are able to read an article and have lunch while listening to the radio, betting on Pakistani rupees and commenting the latest political events in India with your colleague (who is eating his lunch while ordering some flowers online for his wife and trying to convince his sister via Whatsapp to keep the children for the weekend - Come on, just for two nights, just two!).
You don’t believe me? You are right: this morning you were sending an email with your smartphone while checking the prices and the bungalows available at the Bora Bora Pearl Resort, and you were also able to talk about the autumn marketing plan to other people that, like you, were attending the meeting hidden behind the screens of their MacBooks. And you also took the side of the senior manager who, now that you remember, was mumbling some disjointed phrases while staring at an iPad as big as a poster. It’s true, all of it happened for real, but it wasn’t - and you weren’t - multitasking.
These are the words of a professor who teaches neurosciences at MIT, Boston. And this is not the only truth that emerges from the studies carried out in the last twenty years. Those who think to be multitasking, for example, are actually less multitasking than others in the activities that allow it.
David Strayer, psychologist at the University of Utah, has run an interesting study. The question they were trying to answer through empirical data was: is it more dangerous a person who drives carefully but tipsy (within the legal limits in force in the US) or one who drives while using a smartphone? And the answer was: they are equally dangerous.
Not in the same way, for sure, but nobody can focus on driving while speaking and thinking. Therefore, either you are entrusting the car to your prefrontal cortex - that deals with routine activities - or you will keep saying to your partner: I don’t remember having said that.
Tim Harford, who described Strayer’s experiment on the Financial Time, has put an end once and for all to the hopes of those who considered themselves as multitasking superheros. Harford also wrote that a less known experiment by Strayer has showed that there is no difference between using the mobile with the hands or just speaking on it. The real issue when driving and using the phone at the same time are not the hands, but the brain. Harford concluded his article with a smart and sarcastic joke:
It is better to leave the ability to carry out several activities at the same time to the electronic devices, objects (and furniture!) that surround us, while we remain focused on content.
Currently, the only answer that comes from research is that our brain is not a computer and it does not work as a computer. It can examine and think about only one thing at a time, and that’s it. All the rest are routine activities, complex action-reaction processes that include hundreds of thousands variants: like driving.
The real ability here - and what misleads us about the existence of multitasking – is how fast we can change the focus of our attention. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second that makes us believe we are focused on everything at the same time.
But if you laugh at those who got scared at the time of moving images, you should know that multitasking is like a movie: over 25 frames per second you see objects moving, but they are not.