Envisage the switched-on new-millennium male – his iPhone in one hand while he switches between emails and business reports on his computer screen – a vision of productivity in this wondrous age of apps.
Wrong. He’s seriously dumbing himself down.
Several scientific studies around the world have concluded the brain doesn’t switch tasks like an expert juggler. Quite the opposite. It can reduce your IQ by as much as 10 points, cause mental blanks and reduce your productivity by 40 per cent.
Not a single study in psychology shows that women are better than men at multitasking, says Dr Julia Irwin, senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University.
What about women? They’re legends at multitasking and concentrating on several things at once. Nope. Not a single psychological study concludes women are better at multitasking than men, and some research indicates they can be worse.
One Australian researcher in the field, Dr Julia Irwin, senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University, advises people to abandon their apps, turn off their mobiles and ignore their emails while they concentrate on one task at a time. “At the end of the day, they will have been a lot more productive,” she says.
“If you’re sending an email while also working on an assignment, one downside is that withdrawing your attention from one task to another creates a split-second in which the brain’s in no-man’s land. It’s called a post-refractory pause.
“Over time these pauses add up and can mean your mind wasn’t on the job for a couple of minutes.”
Dr Irwin says such mental blanks can be dangerous when doing something of critical importance like keeping an eye out for a child in a playground. “If, in that pause, a child wobbles on their bicycle, it’s obviously a worry. You just haven’t got your attention on it.
“The other aspect is, if you’re deeply immersed in writing something and turn your attention to an email that’s just come in, there are studies that show it can take you up to 15 minutes to get yourself back into that same degree of immersion.”
One early study by the Institute of Psychiatry in London involved more than 1000 workers and found multitasking with electronic media caused a temporary 10-point decrease in IQ – a worse effect than smoking marijuana or losing a night’s sleep.
The study’s leader, an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Dr Glenn Wilson, called it “informania”, a condition created by using multiple electronic devices and employers’ growing demands to tackle more than one task at a time.
“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” he told CNN. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness. Companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working.”
Another study, by Professor David Meyer, director of the University of Michigan’s Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory, concluded that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks cost as much as 40 per cent of someone’s productive time.
Dr Irwin’s own Australian research concludes clearly that in today’s multitasking multi-app world, people should turn off their devices when doing something that merits their full attention.
One of her studies also defies a widespread belief that women are better at multitasking. “One of the very first studies I did was with young students driving and either talking to passengers or on a mobile,” she says. “I thought, oh, the women are going to ace this, but the women actually scored worse on the phones than the men.
“When I looked in the literature, there is not a single study in psychology that shows that women are better at multitasking. But what I did find in the sociological literature is that they perform multiple tasks more often.
“This has led to the belief that women are better at multitasking, but the more studies are done, the fewer differences they find between female and male brains.”