Friday, May 23, 2008

The myth of continuous parallel attention

I've discussed continuous partial attention here and there. It's a condition that afflicts the hyperconnected, and leads to spelling errors, family problems, and other problems.

But Louis Gray has a different way of looking at it. Gray talks of continuous parallel attention:

Can you hold a conversation while typing? Can you read blogs and write e-mail while watching TV? I do. And I must. For with all the information available these days, and my personal unwillingness to miss out on conversations or media consumption, I've done more than embrace what many call "continuous partial attention". Instead, I believe I have a goal of achieving "continuous parallel attention", whereby no single task is given primary focus, but instead, multiple tasks gain the same focus.

Note his words "the same focus." Gray defines continous PARTIAL attention differently:

The common definition of continuous partial attention can be simplified to a person being focused on a single primary task but monitoring background tasks.

In Gray's thinking, there is no hierarchy.

With continuous parallel attention, essentially multi-tasking, no single activity is getting priority over the other. I am writing e-mails at the same time I am listening to music, at the same time I am getting RSS feeds and seeing Twitter updates or seeing the FriendFeed page reload. Ask me the lyrics of the song, and I can tell you. Ask me what was said on Twitter, and I can probably tell you. Through continuous parallel attention, you're not giving one activity the short shrift due to time or priority, but instead, making sure every activity gets the right focus.

But is it "the right" focus? Is it enough focus? In 2001, the American Psychological Association didn't think so:

Whether people toggle between browsing the Web and using other computer programs, talk on cell phones while driving, pilot jumbo jets or monitor air traffic, they're using their "executive control" processes -- the mental CEO -- found to be associated with the brain's prefrontal cortex and other key neural regions such as the parietal cortex. These interrelated cognitive processes establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind's resources to them....

To better understand executive control, as well as the human capacity for multitasking and its limitations, Rubinstein, Meyer and Evans studied patterns in the amounts of time lost when people switched repeatedly between two tasks of varying complexity and familiarity. In four experiments, young adult subjects (in turn, 12, 36, 36 and 24 in number) switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. The researchers measured subjects' speed of performance as a function of whether the successive tasks were familiar or unfamiliar, and whether the rules for performing them were simple or complex.

The measurements revealed that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

The Atlantic quoted a Roman slave on the topic:

To do two things at once is to do neither.

—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

So I suspect that we don't NEED to multitask - we WANT to multitask. And I obviously multitask also; if you've ever looked at my FriendFeed, you see that there are some days when I listen to music for a good chunk of my workday.

So why do I need to hear this song or that song as I'm writing requirements? Why does Louis Gray need to write emails and watch TV at the same time? Well, we won't get an answer to our question here, but we can listen to Danny Bonaduce's (edited) thoughts on the topic.

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