Friday, August 26, 2016

The Perils of Multi-tasking

We live in the age of multitasking. Though a phenomenon of the young, older folks are being dragged into the age by the digital revolution in mobile electronic devices. Youngsters, as digital natives, are wired to multi-task, but they don't realize how multitasking impairs their impaired thinking skills. We call our phones "smart," but they can actually make us dumb. This may be one of the reasons that under performance in schools is so common.

Microsoft clip art

Older folks tend to be amazed and awed by the multitasking ability of the young. But those in all generations should realize that multitasking does not make you smarter or more productive.
In school, multitasking interferes with learning. In the workplace, multitasking interferes with productivity and promotes stress and fatigue. Multitasking creates an illusion of parallel activity, but actually it requires mental switching from one task to another. This drains the glucose fuel needed by the brain, making the brain less efficient and creating the feeling of being tired.

Neuroscientist, Dan Levitan, reminds us that multitasking is stressful, as indicated by increased secretion of cortisol and adrenalin. He cites work showing that IQ can temporarily drop 10 points during multitasking. A brain-scan study showed that new information gets processed in the wrong parts of the brain and not in the hippocampus where it should go in order to be remembered. The most insidious aspect of multitasking is that it programs the brain to operate in this mode, creating a debilitating thinking habit that is permanent.

Constant switching creates a distractible state of never being fully present. It trains the brain to have a short attention span and shrinks working memory capacity. This is especially pernicious in young people, who are most likely to multi-task and whose brains are the most susceptible to programming of bad habits.

Multitasking not only becomes a habit, it is addictive. I see many youngsters who seem to have withdrawal symptoms if they can't check their phone messages every few minutes. Mail messages send an associated signal that someone thinks you are important enough to contact. This provides powerfully reward personal affirmation. Worse yet, like slot-machine payoffs, the reinforcement occurs randomly, which is the most effective way to condition behavior. It turns us into trained seals.
Why does anybody engage in behaviors that can turn them into a trained seal? One study indicates that susceptibility to task switching depends on the existing mental state. The researchers monitored 32 information workers, of near-equal gender, in the work environment for five days. Workers were more likely to switch off task to Facebook or face-to-face conversations when they were doing rote tasks, which were presumably boring. When they were focused, they were more likely to switch to e-mail. Time wasting in Facebook and e-mail increased in proportion to the amount of task switching. Over-all, the workers witched to Facebook an average of 21 times per day and to e-mail 74 times. Though the total time spent off-task was small (about 10 minutes on Facebook and 35 min on e-mail, the excessive task switching must surely have degraded the productivity of the primary work tasks. Why does anybody need to check Facebook 21 times a day or e-mail 74 times a day? This is compulsive behavior that has affected the entire workforce like an infectious disease.

How does on break the multitasking habit? The most obvious way is to reduce the opportunity. Turn off the cell phone. You do not have to be accessible to everyone at every instant. Don't launch the mail app, and when it is on, turn off the feature that notifies you about the arrival of each new message. If you don't need to use a computer or the Internet for the task you are working on, don't turn on your electronic devices. If a computer is needed, don't launch the browser until you actually need it.

Be more aware of your current mental state, because it affects your distractibility. If doing boring work, find ways to make it less boring and thus less tempting to switch tasks. If you are doing work that is engaging, make it a goal to stay focused for longer and longer times on such work. Set goals for increasing the time spent on task. You should at least be able to sustain focus for 30 minutes. Just as multitasking can condition bad habits, mental discipline can condition good attentiveness and thinking habits.


Levitin, Daniel J. 2015. Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Guardian. Jan. 18.

Mark, G. et al. 2015. Focused, aroused, but so distractible: A temporal perspective on multitasking and communications.  ACM Digital Library.

Mark, Gloria. 2015. Multitasking in the Digital Age. doi:10.2200/S00635ED1V01Y201503HCI029. Morgan and Claypool.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who is Responsible? You or Your Neurons?

Do you deserve credit for your honest achievements and blame for your failures? No, say an increasing number of philosophers and scientists. They say that everything you do is commanded from your unconscious mind, which you can't consciously control. The conscious "you" is just a superfluous observer. Free will is thus regarded as an illusion (Fig. 1). My new book, "Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will" (Academic Press), challenges the science used to justify these counter-intuitive ideas.

Figure 1. Illustration of the concept that free will is an illusion. In this view, the actions that your brain commands come from the mechanical gears of an unconscious mind. Conscious mind is informed after the fact, creating the illusion that one's conscious mind commanded the act.

How free will is defined affects the conclusion about whether humans have any free will. As defined here, free will exists when a person generates thinking and behaviors that are neither stereotyped nor predetermined, and yet not random. My book identifies and explains many actions of brain that are unlikely to be performed solely by unconscious thinking. Reason and creativity are obvious exemplars of such free will.

More fundamental is the issue of just who the conscious you is. My book presents the argument that consciousness is not just a state of observation, like a movie fan passively watching a film in which participation is not possible. Rather, consciousness may be a distinct being.

I argue that consciousness can do things because the neurons that create consciousness are part of the over-all global brain workspace. The outputs of their firing cannot be isolated from the command centers of brain. Indeed, we should realize that these neurons are part of the neocortical executive control centers. When those firing patterns enable consciousness, they enable capability for explicit observation and executive action at the same time.

Our human beingness exists as the firing patterns in the neural networks of brain. The patterns are obviously different when we are unconscious, as in sleep or anesthesia. When those patterns change in certain measurable ways, they create consciousness. Compared to the unconscious state, our beingness during consciousness is more amenable to change and more able to initiate thought and action. In that sense, we are a different being when conscious, one that can influence its own nature through explicit thought. Explicit awareness can be attributed to a being acting like an avatar on behalf of brain and body that can command action in the present, facilitate formation of memories, and program circuitry for the future.

Freedom of action in these firing patterns comes from several sources. One is the enormous amount of statistical degrees of freedom in neural networks. Every possible choice has a certain probability that it will be made, and no one option is inevitable at any given moment of choice. A more direct kind of freedom comes from the inherent self-organizing capacity of neuronal networks. The book explores the mechanisms by which neural circuits make choices and decisions and proposes chaos dynamics as one way the brain can generate free will.

Conscious choices are indeed influenced by unconscious biases, but we can be aware of predilections and countermand them. Choices are not necessarily pre-ordained, and thus they manifest the kind of free will that is most relevant to everyday life. The issue of free will is not so much whether we have any, but how able we are to develop and use the free will capacity we have.