The Brain Doesn't Obey The Mind

Why multitasking is a lie.

The Brain Doesn't Obey The Mind

We’ve all experienced it, usually without having noticed. Driving to a familiar location on your usual route. For example, you arrive, and then the realisation that you have absolutely no idea how you got there hits you. This is true of many "mindless" tasks and behaviors. Subjectively, the time is just missing. Some are so convinced this is external that they swear they must have been abducted by aliens.

There's nothing inherently wrong with being "absent." Your morning routine probably doesn't need your full attention. Other times, losing focus can be flirting with disaster. There's another kind of situation with far more serious, lasting effects. Most people won't correct their habituated behaviors regardless of how damaging they may be. No matter how many times the news, or the police, or friends and family have warned a person that their habits are potentially very dangerous - that driver who always texts is still going to stare at their phone and almost definitely consider their self a great driver.

We just can't accept that multi-tasking two focus-demanding activities simply cannot be done. Even now, you're almost certainly feeling insulted and prideful about this. You believe that you're competently performing both, and you'll believe it right up to the rear-ending that you'll swear was the other driver's fault.

Incompetently Competent?

Perception is usually not reality, if ever.

There's a psychological phenomenon called "illusion of competence," and we all suffer from it. Every last one of us. It's natural to fall for the illusion that you're learning while studying that chapter again, or rewriting those verbatim lecture notes one last time before you pass out. The problem is, a false sense of accomplishment is all you get for your trouble.

This article is being created in 25-minute bursts of undivided attention, spaced by 5-minute breaks. There's a powerful urge to multitask, which isn't a thing, so I've offloaded my need to track time using an alarm, and committed to task switching.

Each time I let myself break focus before the timer goes off, I'm undermining myself. I'm falling back to a well-used neural pathway and strengthening it. The brain is efficient with energy, which essentially means it's horribly lazy. Writing is hard if you do it right. The brain wants to avoid hard work and building new connections, so it'll just use the pre-existing ones, which are of course lazy. If I let myself, I'll write an article while watching something and writing code. The problem here is that none of the above can be handled with any sort of competence. Attention just can't work that way.

Paradoxically, those who multitask a lot will tend to self-report a high degree of competency. They've got confidence - but it's an illusion. If you can accomplish three things at once, you must be super productive, right? It only feels that way. In reality, multitaskers are actually considerably worse at absolutely everything than people focus more singularly. The single-tasker is less apt to fall for a false sense of productivity, and builds up a genuine competence over time. Ironically, they suffer from the Imposter Syndrome; they underestimate their own skills. Yet, we still tend to do it. We even consider it impressive. Your last job interview no doubt involved "are you a good multitasker"? The truth, is "No."

We're just like computers.

This is pretty stupid, if you think about it.

I personally run into a problem with the involuntary mental systems that exist to redirect attention to whatever your brain believes it should be on. A phone rings while you're reading a novel - you'll be pulled out of that other world whether you approve or not. I'm sorry to break it to you, but your brain can pull rank on your mind any time it "needs" to.

We need both kinds of attention. The autonomic, diffuse-focus mode is responsible for slamming the brakes to avoid that car, or not spilling scalding McDonald's coffee in your lap.

Nobody is alike. Some can task switch far easier than others. They don't attempt to perform multiple disparate actions at once. Instead, they'll switch quickly between the two.

The human can only hold chunk about four items at once. In terms for nerds, we can only call four concurrent methods. It was previously to be closer to seven.

Remember Kindergarten? It'll help now.

Blank Slate

When you're introduced to a novel concept or skill, each piece of it is separate. Take yourself back to your early school days. If you had only recently begun learning to read, each one of the letters on your screen right now would be processed individually, making it difficult to read words with more than four or so. Because you already are familiar with speech, you speak the word aloud and cause an association between can speak the words aloud (or ‘sound them out’), you can make associations between the way the combination of letters appears and the way it sounds. What you're doing is reading each word as a well-defined object. "Word" has the parameters of sound, mouth-feel, semantic definition, and shape. That is the basic essence of all learning.

Check out my other articles about learning at vocal.media!

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Casey Parker
Casey Parker
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Casey Parker

I'm a very cerebral person, with an eclectic history of jobs, projects, and studies. I've been everything from a C-level executive (which I hated), to a bottom level peon (which I enjoyed). Learn from somebody else's experience!

See all posts by Casey Parker