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One Thing at a Time, Please

Recently I poked fun at those New Age marvels we call the multi-taskers. If you missed it, the salient point was this: Laboratory experiments prove that multi-tasking is, contrary to all hype, hugely inefficient.

Ho ho. Anyone familiar with the childhood fairy tale about the rabbit losing to the turtle already knew as much. Besides, what can we do about it? Multi-tasking is what life requires of us. So we might as well smile and get back to everything all at once. Practice makes perfect, yes?

Actually, no. Practice at multi-tasking is killing us. Or rather, it’s killing cells in our brains. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt I had a surplus to begin with. So I return to the subject of multi-tasking now with less lightheartedness.

And, please, don’t lump me with the prissy “health” fanatics. I put plenty of wear on body and frame, and I’m not fainthearted about it. Some things in life you have to pay for, even with precious brain cells. But multi-tasking needn’t be one of them. It brings me no joy when I catch myself at it, and it remains a steady source of annoyance when I must deal with another human being, friend or foe, who is simultaneously doing something else: like the retail clerk who is talking to her boyfriend on the phone and buffing her nails while I’m asking where I can find the antacids.

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Well, it turns out that those habitual multi-taskers just might be as daffy as they seem.

“Chronic multi-tasking over many years poses a strong risk for ultimate brain damage,” says David E. Meyer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. He is drawing on 30 years of laboratory research and published studies in the field.

Tension and confusion, those consequences wouldn’t have surprised me. But brain damage?

Meyer explained: As we force ourselves to bounce from task to task and back again, we generate stress. Body and mind gear up to cope by releasing adrenaline and other hormones. This powerful medicine is good for a crisis, but hard on the machinery.

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Over time, Meyer continued, chemical byproducts generated in response to stress damage tissues in various parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which produces new long-term memory capacity. Also vulnerable is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for problem-solving, planning, reasoning and the other higher-thought processes that supposedly separate us from the chimpanzee and the inchworm.

De-evolution at work, folks.

Apart from brain damage and consequent depression, Meyer also noted the alarming likelihood that multi-taskers are losing the ability to concentrate. Long-term cultural studies are yet to be done, but all we have to do is peek in on high schoolers to see what happens when people play video games, finish their homework and talk on the phone simultaneously. I did some volunteer teaching a couple of years ago: I was advised by pros that I shouldn’t stick with a single subject for longer than 15 minutes or I’d lose the whole class.

“Concentration, this is an important kind of skill to have,” Meyer observed.

But is it? When I talk to young multi-taskers, they insist that concentration is so yesterday, a conceit of an older generation that’s afraid of technology and the accelerating pace of life. I remind Meyer that young people often point to business CEOs as the archetype of the future -- nimble men and women who make simultaneous, nonstop decisions on a whole conglomerate’s worth of complex matters spanning the world’s time zones.

Meyer was kind enough to pause and let me come to my own realization about the absurdity of that observation.

Those people who concentrate on a single thing, like today’s athletes, have become more accomplished by the season. Would anyone argue if I mentioned that our CEOs, multi-taskers supreme, have gotten manifestly worse?

Makes you wonder. Perhaps there’s more behind Enron and all the rest than simple greed and arrogance.

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