The Multi-tasking Brain at Various Ages

Lately, I can’t seem to get enough information about multi-tasking. A comment on an earlier post got me thinking about it.

caffeinating, calculating, computerating

Dwayne Hodgson wrote:

“I wonder if there is a generational thing at work here? Many of my younger colleagues are very adept at handling multiple projects, multiple conversations and multiple devices at the same time — better than me, that’s for sure. By so firmly rejecting multi-tasking, are we not in danger of making ourselves redundant relics on the e-waste heap of history — piled up like so many 8-track tapes, BETA video players and Vista OS software CDs?”

Excellent question, Dwayne! It made me wonder if those younger, adept, multi-tasking colleagues would grow up to be older, adept, multi-tasking colleagues? And would those of us who (gulp) grew up in the days before e-mail, in the era of 8-track tapes, the first fax machines (remember the rolls of special paper?) and WordStar, be trying to teach these newfangled adults with our outdated methods? Here’s what I’ve found out. Cindy Lustig, University of Michigan psychology professor, in a radio interview, says this:

“While the young child's brain is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, as the brain develops it is able to switch between tasks quite quickly, reaching a multitasking peak in the 20s or 30s . . . Beyond that, the brain experiences ‘internal chatter’ and has to work a lot harder to suppress distractions and maintain focus.”

So it seems as if our brains are wired in our young adulthood to multi-task without a hitch but that later we do slow down because there’s so much general activity in our information-jammed brains. There’s been a fair amount of fear out there that all of our technology and the multi-tasking it invites will damage the brains of our children, but it appears this isn’t so. Antonio M. Battro, MD, PhD, Chief Education Officer of One Laptop Per Child, says that learning to use technology is like learning a second language. “In a sense,” Battro writes, “when humans use a computer and share the same digital environment they are using a second language, or ‘digitalese.’ Postponing the new linguistic skills needed in a digital world contradicts scientific findings in neurolinguistics.” So, when considering what to do about multi-tasking in your teaching . . .

  • the youngest kids will do well with super-focused tasks;
  • middle-school kids will be a little better at splitting their focus, but not in myriad ways;
  • college age through to the 30s are whiz-bang capable of doing a zillion things at once;
  • and people in and beyond their 40s have an increasing amount of “chatter” going on inside their brains and so are both slower at multi-tasking and need more help tuning out the chatter to focus on the tasks at hand.

How have you taken various ages into consideration as you’ve designed your curriculum? Have you thought about people’s multi-tasking abilities? Have you given older learners an environment in which chatter is reduced to a minimum? Hear more on this topic at NPR’s Science Friday:  Does Multi-Tasking Lead to a More Productive Brain?

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