Two new games from Ian Bogost

Study pinpoints the limits of multitasking

Here’s a neat bit of mind-hack research: A couple of psychologists have found that multitasking is easier to do if the various streams streams of info you’re trying to monitor arrive in different modes.

Which is to say, it’s relatively easy to drive a car and listen to music because they’re different stimuli: One is primarily visual, while the other is auditory. In contrast, trying to conduct two conversations at once is hard because they’re both vocal information. As one of the researchers puts it:

Humans learn “sequential structure from multiple sources at the same time, as long as the sensory characteristics of the sources do not overlap,” Christiansen said.

This is only the press release — study won’t be published until next month — so I don’t know more about their experiment or their findings. But as I wrote in my life-hacking piece of last year, this is a problem the computer industry has been grappling with for years. People are running more and more applications simultaneously on their computers — chat, word processing, web surfing, email — and there’s only so much screen space. Since each of these programs relies mostly on visual stimuli, they all wind up overlapping and confusing the heck out of us.

Now, as reseachers like Mary Czerwinski have found, getting a larger screen can improve your productivity by up to 10% merely because it lets you juggle more visual inputs at once. But clearly there’s still an upper limit to our attention. So maybe the answer lies, as the folks in the ambient-technology community would argue, in moving some of our computing tasks away from the screen? If more computing information came to us via audio, we could monitor more streams at once without having the data collide with one another.

Of course, we could also just stop the madness and turn some of those streams off, heh. But where’s the fun in that?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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