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  • Writer's pictureAbby Rosmarin

Multitasking or Mindfulness?

In the March/ April 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, there is a fascinating article entitled “Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain” by David L. Strayer and Jason M. Watson

The authors posit that, except for a very few, effective multitasking is a myth.

While we may believe that those of us who have grown up with multiple technical devices can somehow better concentrate on several things at once, the research shows that the brain has a limited capacity for attention divided attention impedes performance.

Moreover, we may be mistaken about our ability to effectively multitask. The article reports on a study that asked participants to rate the frequency of their multitasking and the participant’s perceived ability to do so. The data indicated that people who were high in real world multitasking had lower working memory capacity, were more impulsive and sensation seeking and tend to rate their own ability to multitask as higher than average. In other words, the authors observed, perceived ability and actual ability to multitask were inversely related.

Often when people are in the midst of conflict, particularly conflict that involves close or family relationships, decisions may need to be made immediately and can feel overwhelming.Some can originate from external forces (e.g. there is a bill that needs to be paid and it is unresolved as to what money source should be used), or from our own thoughts and feelings. Compounded with the pressing on of the world around us is our own emotional state. We are in need to take care of our emotional selves at the same time that we must make decisions that may affect the course of our lives for years to come (e.g., sell the house now even at below market rate, set up a parenting plan for future years, agree on the care of a loved one, divide a family trust, sell one’s share in a business.)

Neuroscience research show us that when we are stressed, the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls response and empathy, is in overdrive and if we feel threatened, it overshadows the brain region that allows for logical detailed analysis. Daniel Goleman, in his book, Emotional Intelligence, termed the phrase “amygdala hijack” to describe any situation where a person responds based on irrational emotional impulses rather than intellectual factors. Three signs of a hijack are a strong emotional reaction, sudden onset and knowing in retrospect that your actions were inappropriate. Processes that encourage a person to evaluate mental data in a calm state of mind can allow for “emotional intelligence” that is the healthy integration of our emotional and executive centers.

So, what we need at the very moment that we feel overwhelmed with the expectations, demands and dynamics of disagreement is the opportunity to slow down and think, feel, reflect and evaluate. We do this best by striving to understand why we feel and think as we do which includes an opportunity to seek an accurate perception of the totality of the circumstances. It is demanding. It requires our full attention, one task at a time.

Update: See also, for a recent article about the effects of distration by technology on learning.

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