The Myth of Monotasking

The Myth of Monotasking

8:00 AM Wednesday November 23, 2011 


I really enjoyed doing this interview with Sarah Green at Harvard Business Review for their podcasting series. The title "The Myth of Monotasking"  is based on the idea that the brain doesn't know how to monotask, in fact the term "multitasking" doesn't really mean much of anything when you think about it carefully since virtually everything we do as humans involves coordinating multiple cognitive tasks all happening at once. This interview helps straighten out some of the confusions around that mushy term and, I hope, helps lower anxiety about how well we are or are not doing against some mythical standard of sustained, focused attention.  Bottom line:  the mind wanders a lot because the mind's task is to wander.  


As Marcus Raichle shows, about 80% of our neural energy is taken up with 'brain chatter,' the different parts of the brain communicating with one another.  It only takes about 5% of the brain's neural energy to change from one externally-motivated task (email! facebook! twitter!) to another.  


More to the point, if we are thinking in historical terms, there is no evidence that we're actually juggling more now than we did in the past either as individuals or as a society.  A small farmer, for example, has to be a champion multi-tasker just to survive--so does a shop keeper, a busy mother with young children (or Lucille Ball in just about any episode of that 1950s sitcom you happen to tune in on).   Every era seems to think there's a speed up of life's distractions. A lot of the so-called science about multitasking in the Internet era starts out with a baseline of nostalgia, not with a realistic assessment of how much the mind was actually being taxed   and multitasked "then" versus "now."   There is hardly a disgruntled middle-aged thinker at any time in history who hasn't thought life has become far too speeded up. . . and typically they blame technology for confusing the profound, deep past with the shallow busy present and, no doubt, a future going fast to the dogs.   (Just ask Socrates:  that's pretty much what he thought, and the new communications technology called the alphabet is what bugged him!). 


This HBR podcasts focuses on practical applications and implications for how we live, work and learn from some basic principles of the contemporary brain science of attention.   It also reviews some of the research I did, interviewing famous people and ordinary people in the course of writing Now You See It so we could all learn some practical insights into the best ways to thrive in our 21st century.


Why is this emphasis on the myth of monotasking important?  Because if we want to change our institutions, we have to believe that it is the institutional structures that are the problem, not the new conditions of life that institutions should be supporting.   That is, if we believe that technology is making us dumb, distracted, shallow, and lonely--as some have said--then we should be insisting that school stay exactly as stultifying, bubble-tested, standardized, and hierarchical as it is now.   By contrast, if we realize that we are in the midst of a monumental historical change and one reason we feel distracted and disjointed is because there is a mismatch between the educational institutions that help to form us and the changed world in which we live, then there is motivation to change our institutions to help us in this new world.  


So attention is key.  I side with those neuroscientists who argue the brain doesn't know how to "monotask."   Multitasking is a way of life, and disruption is what saves us from our own attention blindness.   Right now, we are often blind to how much how world has changed and how essential it is to change our institutions to support that change. 


  Here's a link to the podcast and you can also download it from iTunes:


An interview with Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit .

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