When Clifford Nass - Stanford professor and author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop” – began noticing his students clacking away on computers during lecture and texting under the table in class discussions, his first reaction was envy. “I started out with jealousy seeing they could do all these things that I couldn’t,” he says, marveling at their ability to check Twitter, update their Facebook pages, and ostensibly pay attention in class all at once.
Fascinated, Nass decided to investigate: what was it about his students’ brains that made them so good at multitasking? The results shocked him. As it turned out, being surrounded by so much information wasn’t helping them multitask at all – in fact, it was making them worse at it. “They’re actually hurting themselves,” Nass says. “They’re actually doing worse along all cognitive dimensions one would expect, including the ability to multitask.”
Nass isn’t alone in coming to this conclusion. When author Nicholas Carr began noticing that his attention span became shorter and shorter the more he used the Internet, he, like Nass, dug into the research. The result was his book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, which makes a frightening conclusion: as we attempt to multitask more, our brains adjust, optimizing for constant distraction. In the process, however, we also lose the ability to focus and think deeply. The result is a vicious cycle: “The tragic irony of the 21st century is the people who most frequently multitask are least able to multitask,” says Nass.
Once our brains are programmed, can we ever program them back? Nass says there are ways to mitigate our multitasking addiction and relearn the art of focusing. "When you come upon something, don't keep on putting it back on the list," he advises. "Don't read the same email 20 times. When you encounter it, address the issue."
Want to hear more about the way the Internet is changing our brains? Tune in to our full interview with Clifford Nass and Nicholas Carr to hear how our shrinking attention spans affect everyone from Hollywood producers to automobile manufacturers.
- "Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers," by Clifford Nass and colleagues.
- "Designing Dashboards With Fewer Distractions," via The New York Times.
- "At Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, Technology Can Wait," via The New York Times.