multitasking impedes creativity -- 7/31/15

Today's selection -- from The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin. Focus facilitates creativity and problem-solving, but the ability to focus is impeded by any number of things, including multi-tasking. And we are all easily distracted, because we love new things -- in fact, we humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate:

"The brain 'only takes in the world little bits and chunks at a time,' says MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller. You may think you have a seamless thread of data coming in about the things going on around you, but the reality is your brain 'picks and chooses and anticipates what it thinks is going to be important, what you should pay attention to.'

"[There is a] metabolic costs [for] multitasking, such as reading e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time, or social networking while reading a book. It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus. That means that people who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they'll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it. Daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. And the natural intuitive see-saw between focusing and daydreaming helps to recalibrate and restore the brain. Multitasking does not.

"Perhaps most important, multitasking by definition disrupts the kind of sustained thought usually necessary for problem solving and for creativity. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at UC Irvine, explains that multitasking is bad for innovation. 'Ten and a half minutes on one project,' she says, 'is not enough time to think in-depth about anything.' Creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of altercations between dedicated focus and daydreaming.

"Further complicating things is that the brain's arousal system has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be hijacked easily by something new -- the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and cats. And this novelty bias is more powerful than some of our deepest survival drives: Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects. In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain's novelty centers become rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Don't forget that the awareness of an unread e-mail sitting in your inbox can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain."



Daniel J. Levitin


The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload


Dutton, Penguin Group


Copyright 2014 by Daniel J. Levitin


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