|PHOTO: New York Times|
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Most of us can easily do two things at once; what’s all but impossible is to do one thing at once. ~ MIGNON MCLAUGHLIN, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook
There should be a new law targeting dangerous drivers. The offence: DWL – Driving While Listening.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m listening intently to someone, in the car or anywhere else, I might as well be blind. I came to realize this about the tenth time I sailed right past our exit when listening and responding—as a good husband should—to my wife.
Is it that the signals my brain receives from my ears somehow trump those coming from my eyes, or is it just that one sense—any sense—when applied fully, taps all the concentration my brain can muster at any given moment? In other words, can I, or can anyone, really do two things, both of them thoughtfully and thoroughly, at the same time?
The serial-tasker...might complete just
one of the tasks, but likely in finer detail.
A ZERO-SUM GAME
There’s no doubt some people are better at the multitasking game than others. God knows, everyone’s better at it than I. And, while all kinds of people can do it to one degree or another, it seems its mastery is something that’s hard-wired into the nervous system of more females—especially mothers—than men.
You'll notice I said "seems." Though females may seem better able to do several things at once, I believe it’s really a zero-sum game. They, and men who multitask, are taking roughly the same amount of concentration and intensity that others possess, mixing it up and spreading it over a wider area.
So, even though none of the individual tasks gets the exhaustive attention a serial-tasker might have given it, they’ll all get done. That serial-tasker, in roughly the same amount of time, might complete just one of the tasks, but likely in finer detail.
A recent public television documentary on the impact of the social media (including e-mail, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) shed some light on my zero-sum theory. Some of the brightest students at Stanford and MIT were interviewed about their ability to multitask, both while studying and during classes. (There was no attempt to compare males with females.)
To a person, the students insisted they could easily exchange email and manage their cyber-persona, while in class, without any adverse impact on their learning comprehension. Their professors, incredibly, seemed to agree.
Sound too good to be true? It is. The program’s research indicated exactly the opposite. It concluded, as I’d expect, that “multitasking” simply divides a finite amount of attention into fractions. You divert some attention to a second or third task, and the rest suffer a performance deficit of almost exactly the same amount.
Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than on our streets and highways. There’s no question, despite their protestations to the contrary, that those who pretend to drive cars and also do anything else at the same time—like putting on makeup, futzing with the GPS or texting (in my case, I guess the list should include listening to my wife)—are doing so at their own and others’ great peril.
After examining the behavior of truck drivers covering more than 6 million miles of road, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that people who send text messages while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a crash (or what they call a near-crash event) than nondistracted drivers.
How do you choose which approach is better? The answer is we don’t; that’s why we have marriage.
THE WAY WE’RE BUILT
So, back to the perilous ground of gender typing, might all this amount to some kind of vindication for us predominantly-male uni-taskers? Or does it even make sense to compare the sexes’ relative capacities for concentration?
One is broad; the other, deep. One is strong; the other, fast. One’s analytical; the other, intuitive. How do you choose which approach is better? The answer is we don’t; that’s why we have marriage.
In terms of evolution, this equal-but-different arrangement meant the males who got to carry on the blood lines were those best able to hunt or fend off predators, unconflicted by other concerns or emotions. They operated on raw courage, intimate knowledge of Nature, and finely-honed focus.
Meanwhile, the women who tended to survive were those best able to nurture several kids, maintain the cave and simultaneously manage family and community relationships, endeavors laced with emotions and nuance.
Turns out the two sets of roles complemented each other perfectly. When I hear couples lamenting each other’s shortcomings—pretending that, as rational adults in this day and age, they should be able to get past those timeless, stereotypical roles—I want to remind them that neither of them can help it. It’s the way we’re built.
All of this has an immediate, very personal significance for me as I work on my writing and blogging. I’m left with the conclusion that, in order to fully concentrate on any of it, I have to…..uh-h-h, just a second…What’s that smell? I…..oh, no! Damn! I left my dinner in the oven and it seems there’s a small fire! Just a minute. Where’s my…Let’s see, 9…1…