Memory and Multitasking

How many times in this era of “information overload” have you forgotten something, whether it be somebody’s name, a random fact, or a website’s name, not five seconds after you learned it? Just now, for example, I thought of something that I needed to look up, so I pressed control-T (new tab) on my browser, typed in “www” for the beginning of the url, and suddenly realized that I had no idea what it was that I was searching for.

It turns out I was attempting to go to the Weather Channel and look up tomorrow’s weather.

In my Intro to Sociology class today (err, make that yesterday, as this post took longer than expected to type up), we watched parts of a documentary about the effects of recent information technology upon mainly the American youth. By recent, it means in the last decade. And the video’s main point is, recent technology makes us multitask, and the physical effects of this are not are not wholly good.

I would consider myself a multitasker, but not as much as many others are. This is because I use my cell phone very seldom—my main forms of communication are in-person and the Internet. And the Internet, excluding mobile use in this case, is not yet an all-pervasive technology (i.e., everywhere), which means I can usually engage with another person in conversation undistracted. In contrast, the documentary showed an MIT (or was it Stanford) student at a desk with a laptop and an iPhone out—he was in the middle of an email, IMing someone else, and texting still others. And probably supposed to be doing homework.

And yet, I have somehow forgotten the name of this video.*

Even this blog post so far has taken me at least a couple hours. I’ve been looking at other sites and doing other things.

More concretely, one report has shown that multitaskers are bad at multitasking. Another says that we can’t multitask at all: we instead switch single tasks quickly. This second result is of pivotal importance. It means we cannot consciously focus on more than one thing at a time, and that if we try to do a second action, we lose attention of the first.

It would seem, then, that this is one way to “multitask” well: We perform some task to repetition so that it becomes ingrained into our subconsciousness rather than our consciousness. For example, our hearts are beating and lungs are beating at the same time. But we don’t have to think about either of those.

If you teach a baby to walk and to speak at the same time, it might not work. But walking eventually becomes part of our subconsciousness (muscle memory), and at some point, even talking becomes natural. When such a process is put into subconscious memory like this, it no longer needs our attention. Therefore, some things are possible to multitask: walking and talking, for example. While solving a Rubik’s Cube.

Let us try to apply this practically. In a situation where we have to multitask, we would want to train one of the tasks, or all of them, as much in muscle memory as possible. Unfortunately, some actions are currently impossible to train so. You can’t put a conversation, for example, into muscle memory, because conversations are different each time, and you have to consciously think about what you’re going to say.

The ability to train other actions may be limited by evolution. While we are evolved to walk—and at the same time watch out for predators—we are not quite evolved to make sense of the environment moving 20, 40, 60 miles per hour around us, as in driving. An experienced driver would thus need less attention to the driving process than does the new one.

What if we compare the rates of accidents for texting while driving by experience (age)? That is, do older people who text have a lower accident rate than younger people who text, simply because they are better at driving and can multi-task at it more easily? I have not yet found data sheets collected this way; if anyone could point one out, that would be appreciated.

Now let’s see if you remember what this article said about memory.

*Edit: The video I was referring to is Digital Nation.

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