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Multitasking through Digital Overload Reduces Cognitive: Sorry, I Have to Take This.

Perhaps we should celebrate the joys of singletasking.

Oh sure, multitasking doesn’t even require a hyphen, but singletasking receives only shame as etymological outcast, shunned by lexicographers like some denotative Hester Prynne, marked as unworthy of our global village by her squiggly scarlet underline. Studies indicating a strong correlation between multitasking and diminished attention span absolutely choke the Web these days.

We define our priorities and ourselves, not only through our chosen activities, but also by our method of performing those tasks.

Our host of electronic devices have begun to resemble  the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. James Tiberius Kirk would drop some fruit in his looms upon examination of the modern conveniences we take for granted in the 21st Century, particularly since the captain would have to travel two hundred years in the future to enjoy similar technology.

Still, I wonder if Kirk would show foresight to warn us about our divided addictions to so many masters competing for ownership of our attention spans? Will we get a staccato speech condemning humanity’s lost ability to maintain brilliant focus? Or, will Jim wax histrionic, detailing the measurable effects of multitasking on the developing brain structure among all those tweens and teens tethered to vital hardware?

When it comes to interfacing with our discount world  of digital devices, we should still declare at times that “less is more.” I can corroborate my position with plenty of evidence. I dumped this phrase in the Google search box: “multitasking and diminished attention span.” Google brought forth 266,000 hits for such a wordy, smartypants topic.

Obviously multitasking permeates our zeitgeist as grist for articles, blogs, empirical studies, and science journals. Mercifully, I will spare us all from the verbose syllabication of psychiatric psychobabble. I hereby call upon the magnetic powers of visual narrative and satire to put forth my righteous proposition!

Remember olden times before digital electronics and the Internet, when we used to do one thing at a time?

Once upon a time, Gronk and Ogg, our Homo sapiens forefathers, gathered their tribe of cave dwellers, and directed warriors to  sharpen spears and construct extra weapons for the coming hunt. They could smell the change in weather. Recent scouting reports described in grunts and pantomime newly trampled migratory pathways and mounds of steaming dung.

The party would start with tracking, followed by the identification of the clan’s best choice of wooly mammoth as their massive, hircine prey. Next, the group would review and agree upon effective tactics to ambush and slaughter one of these behemoths, which typically weighed in at 12,000 – 20,000 pounds.

Do you think Gronk and Ogg ever considered multitasking under these circumstances? Did knuckledraggers have time to chat about plant dye recipes, clay mixtures, or spit technique applications to beautify the contemporary cavern? No, by thunder.

Naked apes were too damn busy confronting the sticky possibility of impalement on the business end of a massive  tusk connected to a ten ton hippie pachyderm. Chatty Nancys did not last under such survive-or-die circumstance. Wooly mammoths maintained a bad rep as misers with respect to allowing do-overs during the predatory phase of the hunt. Poor performance led to caveman burials, not mono-syllabic critiques.

Troglodytes couldn’t afford to argue which muscle bound Neanderthal had the best loin cloth tailor. Anything outside the day’s singular focus of “kill or be killed,” would have to wait until the filthy brutes returned to the familial safety of their stony grotto, covered in elephant blood and laden with fresh meat.

Singletasking defines our evolution, our culture, and ruled our psyches, until very recently.

In the dark ages, before the advent of digital communications, multitasking referred to the execution of two to three simultaneous activities, such as checking off the names of fellow students while calling out their handles to take attendance for your homeroom teacher.

We hated these goodie-two-shoes brown-nosers, though secretly we envied their status as our mental alphas. We never connected the early scholastic achievements of fellow learners with parents who made them sit at the kitchen table till obedient progeny slogged through every single homework assignment.

Boomers are lucky if they can still form complete sentences.

And as for my own demographic of die hard knuckleheads, what teen or tween could possibly slap a negative label on Mom or Dad for allowing us to pack the afternoons and Saturdays with The Three Stooges, Scooby Do, The Banana Splits, George of The Jungle, or the Smurfs? Fading into the soft, glassy-eyed luxury of a cartoon marathon, uninterrupted by chiding from our Loco Parentis, felt more like Church on Saturdays, offering more rapture than we could pray for in a month of Sundays.

In the 70’s, we rode the celestial trajectory of  a buzz fueled by a bottomless bowl of Sugar-Frosted Rocket Bombs, then plummeted along the impending biochemical slalom to unconsciousness during Josie & The Pussycats. What sassy, good-for-nothing teen could hope for a more sacred Saturday morning ritual?

We knew we were livin’ the high life when we blazed through a box of brand name empty calories, and didn’t have to settle for dumping a pound of C & H over a pathetic bowl of Wheat Chex.

Multitasking belongs in our miserable adulthood, not our miserable youth.

Television, the one-eyed hypnotist of our formative years, did plenty of damage on its own, without the legion of winking, blinking, squeaking, vibrating, singing electronic diversions now arriving as standard equipment in our late model American childhood.

But way back when, whilst Ma and Pa got fed up with our layabout largesse, all they had to do was saunter up to the set, turn the knob counterclockwise to the “off” position, and then holler at us theatrically to get the hell out of the house, go play, make friends, and find some trouble like the rest of our neighborhood rabble-rousers.

To our parental pals of America’s millennial moppets: Start the wee ones on books and stories long before they can read. As adolescence approaches, kids will still join the Borg Collective by jacking in to server farms, smart phones, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, camcorders, Sony Kinect, Blue Tooth, WiFi, Android tablets, and computers for the sake of gaming, blogging, texting, emailing, sharing links, digital photos and videos, making friends and gathering followers unto their own cult of personality.

Even lazy parents respect the importance of seeing their children lost in a good book.

Honor story time and you will teach your gene pool the importance of imagination, the ability to generate pure wonder from scratch, along with the practical value of believing in the impossible.

Great minds think. Make sure your children conquer the synaptic space they need to wander, explore, and delight, cognitively conjuring anything they please. Start early with books, and reveal the electric magic of a good story.

Your kids just may learn enough to think for themselves by the time Sony, Apple, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Phillips, Google, Motorola, Nokia, Nintendo and the Ethernet try to tell them what to value, or how to use their own noggins.

When the pimples, dimorphic features, knee-jerk defiance, and self-loathing debut, tweens and teens will still grunt at you, ignore your questions, and refuse eye contact while mashing buttons and tweeting a stupid reply to  spotty peers. But the good news remains that offspring will have the ability to follow you all the way to a predicate, or even the concluding paragraph of a research paper. Don’t skimp on the literature, and your brood may follow far enough to rediscover your worth once they reach adulthood. It could happen.

What activities defy multitasking?

We should have quite the laundry list of singular tasks, given that humanity has hasn’t had time to synthesize our entire gene pool, or develop the cybernetic hardware to erase our primitive nature. I’ll offer you a short list of biological concerns where I rarely compromise this value.

1) A Quality No. 2 – Pooping in the company of a good read usually enhances the experience. But if you bring along anything besides a book, you’re missing out. These spiritual moments transcend digital distraction. Your mind and sphincters should remain open, especially to receive the blessing of the full body shiver that often rewards your patience. Killing Germans or Angry Birds on your mobile phone will serve only to open sphincters, not your mind.

2) Mating Rituals – If you must “take this call,” while you’re taking it somewhere else, you may as well command your iPhone to hunt down a water-based lubricant, vibrator, or other auto-neurotic self-help device.  Healthy partners, who prize a successful outcome during physical romance, will drop you like an old prepaid flip phone for the next hot babe or beefcake. Good lovers know that great sex comes from attention to detail with a partner eager to ensure you feel as though you come first in the mutual struggle for the big “Oh.”

3) Good Food – You may add good company and good music to this mix, but the moment you introduce anything else with a printed circuit board, you rob yourself from tasting one of the most fundamental experiences of our very existence. Don’t screw this up. Eat and understand the flavors. Savor the delicious music of your taste buds as a daily ritual, or consider a regimen of effective antidepressants.

Will digital technology murder our minds?

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published the amazing short story collection we know as The Golden Apples Of The Sun. I fell in love with Bradbury’s scifi short called The Murderer, in which the author imagines a futuristic dystopia polluted by the blink, buzz, and chatter of desperately needy modern conveniences.

The protagonist, Albert Brock, rebels against a society smothered under information overload while enduring the noisy ministrations of gabby machines, who, like their masters, don’t function in a world that honors silence.

For the sake of peace and quiet, as well as his sanity, Albert begins sabotaging all the “…machines that yak-yak-yak.” Albert chooses “The Murderer” as his moniker, supposing himself the vanguard of a  revolution committed to creating a society that values  peace and silence.

Albert’s shrink offers the following diagnosis: “Seems  completely  disorientated,  but  convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them.” I read this tale in the 70’s, yet as our allegory nears its 60th year, I  have watched the story grow from fiction to fact, especially as many humans have already reached the point of touching digital electronics more often than they do each other.

You can download a free .mp3 of “The Murderer,” faithfully adapted by BBC radio at http://mp3skull.com/mp3/golden_apples_of_the_sun.html. Look for the .mp3 file called “BBC The Golden Apples Of The Sun 03 A Sound Of Thunder & The Murderer mp3” Our story begins at 15:40 and stays true to the text, featuring Brits who do a convincing American accent.  Hear the words or read the words, but skip the video. YouTube has proved unkind in chronicling the reduction of masterful short works to the equivalent of a video traffic accident. Sometimes less is more, even for Ray Bradbury.

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