Multitasking Dementia

I had no memory of where I parked my car. Why? While I was parking the car, a friend called. Against my better judgment I took the call. I wanted to talk to him, and I found myself so engrossed in the experience of telling him everything that happened with our mutual loved one (who is suffering from cancer) over the last month, that I had apparently no memory of where I parked the car. All I could remember was the sensation of walking over a pedestrian overpass, and looking for the spa, where ironically, I was going to relax.

The theme of the day was multitasking. I blamed multitasking for the incident. I lost my car, but first believed it might be stolen. It’s always fun when those two questions obsessively course through your brain: Did I lose my car or was it stolen? After 30 minutes of scouring for it on foot, I flagged down a cop who amazingly helped me find the car by driving around with me. He was my savior. After thirty more minutes we found it. I gushed, “Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.” I think he thought I was the most tightly wound woman in San Francisco.

Some defenders call it, “continuous partial attention.” I think they are kidding themselves. Just that morning, I found myself unable to stop emailing while listening to an absolutely riveting KQED Forum radio show about our increasing propensity to text, IM, email, and watch videos while doing everything else. The Stanford study expected “heavy media multitaskers” to have special abilities, but instead, but all they found were deficits in their memory, efficiency, attention, and organizational skills, as compared to non-heavy-media multitaskers. HMMs have the illusion of productivity, but the brain’s switching costs, from emailing to IM to video to writing, are too high. The brain can only process one string of information at once.

Add a new symptom to the list: I realized that I suffer from multitasking-induced dementia. The moment of parking my car didn’t even happen because it doesn’t get etched into my memory. I remember many details of my phone call with Robert, and nothing about the street where I parked my car.

What does this all have to do with quirkyalone?

We have to stop the multitasking madness. At least, I know I do. It’s antithetical to the vida quirkyalone, or the good life, in any sense. When we multitask, we don’t suffer only cognitively. I believe we suffer emotionally too. That’s the study I would like to see next. What does multitasking do to our mood and self-esteem? If you’re me, you feel like an idiot because you lose your car! More generally, if you are moving so fast and doing so many things, you’re not present for your own life. If you don’t notice your surroundings and take pleasure in the moment, you’re not living la vida quirkyalone.

Our quirky divinity emerges when we are more grounded and still. That’s when the answers become clear, that’s where joy lives. I am such a believer in stillness and focus and doing one thing at a time, but I have to remind myself of the value of stillness over and over again. I have to exercise willpower to do just one thing: eat, write, read, watch a movie, even now. The temptation to pick up my laptop is there. It’s a message I need to hear so many times before it sinks in, before I acquire the willpower to put my phone in my purse and zip it closed. I really believe it’s the key to happiness and ease for me. It’s crazy how we are trying to alter our brains to do more than one thing at once. . . it doesn’t work.

So today I forgot my phone at home and I will be without it for a few hours. I am giddy about that. I just wrote this blog post, only checking my email once and going online to research the study! What a victory. I am breathing deeper.

What are your thoughts on multitasking? Can you multitask and be happy, or are you trying to cut back too?

P.S. Here is a short video I made with my aunt and her caregiver about quirkyness. . . listen for the end for some profound thoughts about stillness and quirkyness. It’s a little hard to hear at the end, but it’s very spot-on for this topic.

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Posted in Personal Growth, Technology + Modern Life
3 comments on “Multitasking Dementia
  1. Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I also wonder what impact multitasking has on our stress levels and overall happiness.

    Every time I see a job ad (I see a lot of them because I’m a freelance writer), it almost goes without saying that multitasking will be a requirement. Since when did it become standard for every job to require the work of two or three people? Why do we tolerate unreasonable expectations by agreeing to attempt the impossible?

    I wonder if these employers realize how much quality they’re sacrificing for increased productivity. Finishing that report or memo faster is pointless if major portions are incorrect or unreadable.

  2. Sasha, thanks so much for posting this.
    I would say, no, you can’t multitask and really be happy because when you’re doing it you’re out of touch with your brain’s natural modes of functioning, you’re essentially disrespecting your surroundings, and you’re not truly honoring your companions — be they electronic or otherwise — with your full attention.
    Each year I do a week-long working retreat at a zen center so remotely located that cell reception is impossible. (At this point, anyway.) Spending a week in a place where people have no choice but to pay full attention to nature and to each other is a psychic de-tox I can’t live without.
    The first post on my new blog (and you might like my newest one too, by the way — “The Dating-Scene Trend Article Drinking Game”) was an essay called “Defending the Cathedral Mind” in which I argue that reverence is a lost value in an age where all the hottest technology enables all our worst, most narcissistic tendencies. I plan to write much more on the relationship between technology, psychology, and culture, and the ways in which we can control that relationship instead of letting it control us. Nicholas Carr is another good person to read.
    Again, respect for posting this and making it an important topic.

  3. Sasha Cagen says:

    Your retreat sounds glorious. Where do you go? Answer at your peril. There may be a stampede of multitaskers following you for a break from the madness!

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A quirkyalone is a person who enjoys being single (or spending time alone) and so prefers to wait for the right person to come along rather than dating indiscriminately. Quirkyalones prefer to be single rather than settle.
Quirkyalones can also be married or in a committed relationship (quirkytogether). You can be a man or a woman, any age.
Quirkyalone is ultimately a philosophy about finding happiness within yourself whether you’re single or in a relationship.

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