Waiting for Godot (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s “Mysteries of the Mind Week” on TVO (TVOntario — the province’s educational television station). I’ve been interested in brain science and neurology for a couple of years, reading books and articles on the subject, watching TV specials when they appear, and following the excellent Brain Science Podcast, an impressive series of interviews with brain scientists and related book discussions by host Dr. Ginger Campbell.

Every evening, TVO is presenting two to three hours of programming devoted to the brain. The specials have been weak — mainly BBC-produced documentaries focusing on individuals whose brains are failing to alzheimers or dementia, and on other unusual types of individuals, such as an autistic artist with amazing abilities to accurately recreate cityscapes he’s seen once. One of the specials is a time series on precocious children who have “genius” level IQ scores, following them through their development. It was easily the most interesting of the specials.

The problem with the specials is that there was very little science in them. As human interest stories they are interesting, but I was hoping to learn new things this week and I don’t get much from the features.

In contrast, TVO’s daily topic show, The Agenda with Steve Paiken, delivered. A varying group of panelist covered many topics and issues, providing current understandings of brain science based on their research, clinical experience, and in the scientific literature.

Last night’s topics included debate on whether or not the bombardment of media, including things like iPods, Facebook, instant messaging, cell-phone texting, and video games, has produced a generation of young people who are fundamentally different from previous generations. Does this activity create a different neuronal structure in the brain itself?

Of course no solid conclusions could be reached, but all the panelists, most of whom were neuroscientists, agreed that it was highly likely. The discussion then proceeded along the lines of “is this affecting their ability to concentrate and succeed in the world and the workforce, or does it leave them fragmented?”

The most interesting panelists in this part of the discussion were science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and media consultant Don Tapscott, whose newest book is Grown Up Digital — a followup to his earlier Growing Up Digital.

Rob made the salient point that humans evolved on the African Savannah where multitasking was essential to survival. While searching for food, or hunting, you also had to be alert to sounds and motions, such as poisonous snakes, hunting eagles, and lions, all of whom may be hunting you. His thesis is that humans evolved to be multitasking, and that the past fifty years or so, with people glued to the boob tube, have been an aberration rather than the norm.

Don Tapscott recently funded a study that indicated that young people who have grown up in a multitasking, wired environment, are succeeding very well indeed, and that the activities they engage in occur in place of the TV time that absorbed earlier generations.

All the panelists agreed that there is no such thing as multitasking per se, but that what young people do is very rapid task switching. And that they are much better at it than older generations.

It was a fascinating discussion, and may help me to understand the rivetting attraction of texting I see in many of the younger folk I know. Perhaps I will eventually even get Twitter.


About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
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3 Responses to Multitasking

  1. Peter Cameron says:

    An interesting topic, Gene. I find that, with a few exceptions, TV and science don’t appear to mix well. Last night I was watching a documentary in which an “archeologist” was claiming a name on a shard of pottery was proof of all sorts of things. Fortunately, the show presenter pointed out that all it proved was that someone had been aware of the name and put it on a pot. But things like that make one despair for the state of science.

  2. Gene says:

    Peter, I couldn’t agree more.

    I’ve watched TV channels that showed so much initial promise, like Discovery, History Channel, Learning Channel, start off with interesting, solid programming then decline quickly into pseudoscience and sensationalism. Increasingly they’re full of woo-woo. Even some Scientific American specials fall into this disease.

    There are exceptions. Shows by Neil deGrasse Tyson, anything featuring Richard Dawkins, and intermittent shows that surprise.

  3. Gene says:

    Rob Sawyer provided a nice trackback to this posting in his Jan 15 blog:

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