Bonus clip from Drowning in Distraction, with Dr. Adam Gazzaley.
Dr. Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco addresses how our “ancient” brains struggle to cope with the deluge of distraction from modern-day technology and offers solutions.
In this bonus segment, Dr. Gazzaley shares what multitasking really means, and why some people prefer working from a coffee shop when they want to focus.
Phil Stieg: One of my pet peeves is when I used to go on interviews and somebody would ask me whether I could multitask. My personal feeling is your brain cannot multitask. And I’m curious what your thoughts are versus the concept of task switching. So what are your thoughts?
Adam Gazzaley: We really don’t multitask in the pure sense of the word. First, what I’d like to say is multitasking as a concept of, you’re doing multiple tasks in a domain of time, is a behavior that we do. So from that perspective, sure, we multitask, but the reason why we sometimes present it as a myth is that what it implies is that in your brain, you’re multitasking in the purest sense of parallel processing multiple streams of information. And we do that actually all the time – you can walk and have a conversation. We do process multiple streams of information, but when you have two attention demanding activities and you feel like you’re multitasking them, what we find is that your brain establishes neural networks.
So these networks activate when you’re doing something like paying attention to what I’m saying right now. And when you do something else, like check an email, those networks switch. So you can’t really be checking an email right now and be listening to me.
You feel like you’re multitasking, but you’re not in terms of parallel processing, you’re switching between those things. And we could see that in the brain. As one of those tasks become very routine, sure, it can be offloaded to automatic functions like walking or chewing gum. But if they’re attention demanding, you can’t truly multitask them, you’re really switching.
Phil Stieg: So what do you have to say about the student that says I love the study with music on or the TV on in the background? By pushing out the TV or the music, are they helping themselves focus? What’s going on there?
Adam Gazzaley: It’s this really interesting phenomenon. I call it the coffee shop effect, right? You have something important to do. Like, even when I was writing The Distracted Mind, I would often do it in coffee shops, which is just a bizarre phenomenon, because you’re putting yourself in a distracting environment intentionally when you know you have something important to do, where intuitively, the move would be to go into a quiet room or a library or just find a place free of distraction.
And so we have this tendency to, I put on music when I work, or even put ourselves in more distracting environments like a very busy coffee shop. And we’ve done a little bit of work around this. In general, having interference present degrades performance right across the board.
Now, there are some things that could happen. So for example, music, depending if it’s music you like, (which is very important when music is being pumped into an office) so music that you like, and sometimes particular types of music, like for example, music without lyrics versus music with lyrics, all of these features could have an impact on your mood and your arousal, which may counteract some aspects of the interference that it is inevitably causing. So, there could be benefits of having certain types of interference present while you’re trying to focus.
The other potential is that interference comes both externally, which is the obvious, the things we’re talking about, and internally as well. So, for example, mind wandering, you could be heavily distracted not by something in your environment, but by the thought of a fight you had with your significant other earlier that day. You could be distracted by your stomach rumbling of hunger or pain. So internal signals could be very interfering.
The hypothesis that I have, is that putting yourself in an environment where there is some degree of external distraction engages the suppression mechanisms that allow you to shut that off, which also could shut off the internal interference. And if you’re in an environment with no distraction, those suppression mechanisms are not engaged, and your internal interference is more active. And people will describe this anecdotally. They will say, I can’t work in a library. I can’t stop my mind from moving. So I think there is something there, but it’s very hard to research.
Phil Stieg: They have ADHD though.
Adam Gazzaley: So well, that’s a whole other story..(laugh)