At the end of 2011, the media was buzzing about the harmful effects of multitasking and the evils of divided attention. True, according to a study done at Stanford, when we do multiple things at once, we don’t filter and sort information as rapidly and our ability to focus on one selected detail is diminished.

Great…. There are rare moments in my life when I have one task that I need to complete in isolation. Taking things one at a time is not always an option. Just when I decided that I was simply not going to perform at my best, most of the time, I read a book by Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See ItThis much wiser- than-I woman took a different approach to Stanford’s findings. Here are two lines from her book (trying my best to keep them in context):

  • I’m suggesting that the most important finding from this test is not that multitaskers are paying attention worse, but they are paying attention differently!

  • In our global, diverse, interactive world, where everything seems to have another side, continuous, partial attention may not only be a condition of life but a useful tool for navigating a complex world. From: Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson.

Insert huge sigh of relief here. What Dr. Davidson, Duke University, proposes and what is so freeing, is that we need to look at how our brains function from within our own busy, complicated, multi-layered lives. However, if we merely change the context and change the setting we don’t change the results. So, maybe change the question…?

Herein lies the other side of the multitasker argument . A group of computer science researchers that also work at Duke University, seem to understand that we, like computers, must multitask to, at the very least, understand and integrate what is going on around us. They get it and are now looking at this proposal: maybe “chronic multitaskers” are taking in bits and pieces of everything and sharing all that information among tasks – finding relationships between pieces of information and distributing what is needed to complete all tasks at hand, not one single task. I am paraphrasing (hopefully not taking too many liberties with their findings) but they seem to propose that brains, like computers, share expertise across tasks, learning what is important, useful and relevant by testing multiple sources (Duke Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering). If artificial intelligence can be programmed to learn from what is happening now and use that info to solve problems and develop strategies for future use, why can’t we program our brains to do the same?

Change the context; change the setting; and change the question: what can we do to better function in our multifaceted, multilayered, demanding world?

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