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What Can Winnie-the-Pooh Teach Us About Media Multitasking?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So—the Children’s Books; a short
Intermezzo of a sort:
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
Those four trifles for the young.

How many Winnie-the-Poohs is too many? Pooh is an excellent guide to the perils of multitasking. Credit: Crabchick, Creative Commons.

With those lines, Alan Alexander Milne—or A. A. Milne, as he’s more widely known—paid tribute to his most enduring creation, a certain fuzzy brown bear called Winnie-the-Pooh. And what a creation it was. It’s little wonder that the books have eclipsed the rest of Milne’s (quite considerable) pen-and-inking. For me, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh—that baby blue hardcover, with the ever-magnificent Ernest Shepard drawings gracing the dust jacket and jumping out from every page to say hi—is much like The Godfather is to the Tom Hanks character in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail: something that has the answer to everything. In all seriousness, it has to be among the greatest books of all time. And I don’t mean children’s books.

I’m hardly alone or even particularly original in considering Pooh to be oh so much more than a children’s book character. Benjamin Hoff, for one, even used Pooh and his friends to explore the principles of Taoism, in The Tao of Pooh and its companion, The Te of Piglet. But just as Pooh and Piglet prove themselves worthy of Eastern philosophy, they are no slackers when it comes to Western psychology. In fact, I would argue that Milne’s understanding of the human mind, as evidenced by the adventures, musings, and antics of a group of animals who happen to all live in the same corner of a not-too-large forest, is a profound one. Children may miss some of the insights, but the adults that belong to them would do well to pay attention. And if you’re an adult who hasn’t read the Pooh stories since childhood? Run. Grab the nearest copy. Read. Discuss. You’d be surprised at what you find.

You don’t even have to go much further than the lines I quoted at the beginning of the article to see why. In writing the Pooh books and poems, Milne wrote on whatever came in sight: on those things that surrounded and inspired him at any given moment. And that is never a bad idea when it comes to psychological research—look no further than Jean Piaget (inspired by his own children), Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (by the way their own minds worked and the mistakes they themselves made), Sigmund Freud (by his own complicated relationship with his father), David Eagleman (by his own near-death experience falling from a roof). The list can go on indefinitely.

In the very first paragraph of the very first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne uses Edward Bear—newly dubbed Winnie-the-Pooh—to illustrate a concept that is no less (and perhaps far more) relevant now than it was back in the days of Christopher Robin’s childhood: we can’t think straight when our head is busy doing something else. Milne writes:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

Oh, the perils of multitasking for proper thought. Pooh would like to think of a better way to travel down stairs—but he can’t, not as long as his thought process keeps being interrupted by the next stair. And what are those bump-bump-bumps but the exact kind of taxing interruption that we place on our own minds, of our own choice? We don’t need Christopher Robin to drag us down a set of stairs. We are very capable of doing it to ourselves, thank you very much.

Think of each step as one more thing that keeps getting in the way of what you’d originally meant to be thinking—in Pooh’s world, how to get down stairs; in yours, anything that you were trying to accomplish. Each new input—an email, a phone call, a chat message that pops up on your screen, a beep from your phone that reminds you of something you were supposed to do—serves as a bump that, quite literally, interrupts the thought process in a physical way. And when you resume it? You have to try to recreate your brain’s path, retrace your steps, take a moment to gather your mental resources – all at an incredible cost to both quality and speed.

Just like Pooh’s mind isn’t meant to think when it is bouncing down steps, ours aren’t meant to multitask. We are horrible at it. Good multitaskers? They don’t exist. Even the self-proclaimed best of the best perform far worse at just about anything when they are multitasking than when they focus on one thing at a time. In one study, those people who defined themselves as successful heavy media multitaskers, consuming multiple content streams at once with ease, were actually more susceptible to both irrelevant environmental stimuli and irrelevant representations in memory. As a result, they were far more likely to get distracted and became worse instead of better at task-switching. And isn’t task-switching just where you’d expect good multitaskers to excel?

And it goes further. A chronic tendency to sacrifice depth for breadth may, according to the findings, actually alter our brain’s underlying information processing and its cognitive control mechanisms, so that we become unable to weed out the irrelevant inputs that come both from the outside (media streams, etc.) and the inside (our own memories), and as a result, can’t focus our attention when multiple distractions are present. It really is an incredibly physical process, just as Pooh’s journey would have you believe.

And neural changes are evident even in something as seemingly easy—at least compared to the myriad inputs that we’ve become used to juggling every day—as driving and talking at the same time. Participants who listened to spoken sentences that they had to judge to be true or false saw a marked decline in driving accuracy in a simulated driving task. And what’s more, activation in the parietal lobe (associated with spatial processing) declined by 37% as compared to its activity during the uninterrupted driving task. All this without even having to manage a phone—just from having to process someone’s speech.

With age, the prognosis gets even worse. Older adults are more affected by interruptions than are younger adults, performing worse on tasks of working memory (incidentally, everyone is affected; it’s just a question of extent) and losing potentially valuable information in the process.

Still, you might find yourself arguing that, just as Pooh only knows one way of coming down the stairs, bump after bump, so, too, do we have to multitask to get along; no two ways about it. But is that really so? If you could improve quality and focus, you may end up getting more done by effective task planning than you would by simultaneously trying to do everything at once. Maybe, Pooh really could come upon that elusive other way to get down the stairs, once he stops bumping for a bit.

And what’s more, he might be happier as a result. Not that Pooh has any shortage of that—but then again, as instructive as he is, he is a bear of very little brain, and far less memory to begin with than are we. He may find it easy to forget that bumping along one step at a time wasn’t the most pleasant method of transportation. We may not be as lucky. In fact, multitasking may be making us more unhappy than we realize—at least Harvard psychologist. Dan Gilbert would argue that it does. Gilbert found that people are less happy, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant an activity might be, when their mind wanders (and yes, mind-wandering is the cause, not the result, of unhappiness, as time-lag analyses illustrated). And that happens on average 46.9% of the time. While mind-wandering and multitasking may not be the exact same thing, I would argue that really, mind-wandering is just one specific subset of multitasking: a multitasking of the mind, so to speak—and one that likely precedes (and certainly accompanies) physical multitasking.

Pooh has one thing on us. No bear is likely to be as in the moment as he. When his mind wanders, its new activity is whatever it has wandered to—and as such, you can say it’s not wandering at all. So, he manages to stay happy, if not necessarily as efficient as he might be if someone were to just stop bumping his head. And that, perhaps, is what we should learn from him. We may be able to improve our performance if we would only take a moment to pause in between all of those steps. But even if we can’t, the least we can do is be present in whatever multiple tasks we attempt.

 

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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