I told the ear doctor I heard 'purple' instead of 'circle.' "But, you have no hearing loss," he replied. "Perhaps you aren't really listening carefully." His reply haunted me. What if he's right? It's not that I'm not listening. It's that I listen while doing other things. At 50, can't my brain continue to do more than one thing at a time?
In "The Guinea Pig Diaries," the author Jacobs argues that my juggling routine is not multi-tasking. Rather, it's switch tasking, meaning toggling between one task and another. I am not doing things simultaneously. Not surprisingly, Jacobs cited studies concluding that switch taskers pay less attention overall than those who do one thing at a time. The troubling finding, however, was that switching impairs learning abilities and uses less total brain power.
Researchers found that as we age, the speed of the switching and the time it takes to refocus slows. So, if I am cooking dinner while listening to my son, I may take more time to refocus on his words after I've measured an ingredient. They have also discovered that switch-tasking reduces memory and lessens the ability to retain information. So, our daily activity overload might be promoting the memory loss my friends and I keep joking about.
While I've been fretting about self-initiating switch tasking effects, technology creates many of the involuntary interruptions that seem to demand our immediate response. Our phone, e-mail, voice mail, and text messages noisily announce themselves. If these distractions are impossible to ignore, and if researchers are right, then as we age we are losing our productivity since we're slower to refocus on the task at hand.
Some argue that technology is creating a culture of eroding attention that is rewiring our brains. If our ability to focus and retain information is diminishing, then it may be harder for us collectively to solve social problems in the future.