March 28, 2007

Mindfulness & Multitasking

In the buddhadharma, mindfulness is everywhere. Even in witty books like The Dharma of Star Wars Mathew Bortolin tells us “Mindfulness is the energy that shines light on all we see and all we do. It is awareness of what is happening right now. Mindfulness supports concentration – the art of precisely and deeply focusing one’s attention on an object or task at hand – and together the two bring us into direct contact with reality, where insight and understanding are born.”

“It is difficult to be mindful because many of us have lived unmindfully for years and even decades. Yoda’s words about Luke in The Empire Strikes Back can easily be applied to us: ‘Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing.’ Likewise, our minds are rarely in touch with where we are and with what we re doing. And in this way we have accumulated many years of living without mindfulness – doing one thing mechanically while thinking about another – and this habit of living distractedly has become ingrained in us.”

A tai chi master once began our class with admonitions against doing two things at once. When you listen to music and wash the dishes you are not really listening to music or washing the dishes, he told us. Personally, that sound good to me since I hate washing the dishes if I can do it without really having to do it I find no great loss there. All that aside, I remember at the time feeling a great deal of skepticism and a healthy dose of sexism.

I am a modern woman and in the modern world multitasking has gained a kind of mythical status, (I even have it listed as a skill on my resume) and it is consistently associated more with women than men. Claudia Wallis writes in Time Magazine “Human beings have always had a capacity to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era--picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler.” This evolution can account for the higher ability of women to multitask. No matter what she was doing, she always had to keep one eye on the kid, and those kids were more likely to not accidentally kill themselves. Whereas guys had to concentrate totally on stalking the wildebeest lest it turn and gut them.

I notice also that the majority of the dharma is authored by men. I wonder if their inability to effectively multitask leads them to their negative conclusions. Yet I cannot argue with the wisdom of mindfulness. Now, when I Google “multitasking” the first several articles which come up treat it as a negative rather than a positive. I wonder if this is just a research trend – humans have a long standing tradition of challenging their predecessors, being against something just because someone before them was for it – or, now that the studies of multitasking are no longer in their infancy, they are finally beginning to uncover the truth of it.

“Although many aspects of the networked life remain scientifically uncharted, there's substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn't. It may seem that a teenage girl is writing an instant message, burning a CD and telling her mother that she's doing homework--all at the same time--but what's really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing. ‘You're doing more than one thing, but you're ordering them and deciding which one to do at any one time,’ explains neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

“Then why can we so easily walk down the street while engrossed in a deep conversation? Why can we chop onions while watching Jeopardy? ‘We, along with quite a few others, have been focused on exactly this question,’ says Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego. It turns out that very automatic actions or what researchers call ‘highly practiced skills,’ like walking or chopping an onion, can be easily done while thinking about other things, although the decision to add an extra onion to a recipe or change the direction in which you're walking is another matter. ‘It seems that action planning--figuring out what I want to say in response to a person's question or which way I want to steer the car--is usually, perhaps invariably, performed sequentially’ or one task at a time, says Pashler. On the other hand, producing the actions you've decided on--moving your hand on the steering wheel, speaking the words you've formulated--can be performed ‘in parallel with planning some other action.’ Similarly, many aspects of perception--looking, listening, touching--can be performed in parallel with action planning and with movement.” – Willis

See,9171,1174696-1,00.html for the entire article.

I can’t deny that even as I type this entry I am half engrossed in a conversation with four of my studio mates about recent movies, our classes, and why incoming freshmen are so dumb. Three of us four have laptops open and the fourth fiddles with the pens and papers on the desktop where she sits. I don’t feel terribly diminished or distracted as a result. But am I mindful? Probably not.

Is there a balance to this? A middle way which can be achieved? Or is true mindfulness the only response? Can single pointed concentration combined with a lack of attachment (therefore reducing the adjustment period in a constantly shifting world) allow us to effectively multitask by switching our concentration with no lag time while giving our full attention to each task as it comes to us?

Can one multitask mindfully?


Christy said...

I really like how you articulate the constrast between mindfulness and multitasking.

Christy Matta

Monica said...