They say you know you’re a grad student when…
September 24th, 2009


They say you know you’re a grad student when you can read course books and cook at the same time. That’s probably a dated definition. Today’s grad student can probably read, cook, listen to music, and download a movie at the same time.

But a recent study conducted by Stanford University researchers claims that multitasking isn’t helping you or your brain. A hundred students were apparently put through a series of tests aimed at demonstrating their multitasking facility. The results, according to the study, were less than inspiring. The researchers aver that the students were as easily distracted as skittish cats. I’m not a Stanford scientist, but call me skeptical. Here’s a description of the tests:

…the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don’t.

In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn’t ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organizing information. Maybe they had better memories.

The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

So it is that the Stanford researchers deduced that multitaskers do not pay attention or switch from one task to another as well as non multi-tasking types do. Sorry, but is this what we call science? The world is rapidly producing an entire generation of multitaskers, many of whom are going to grad school where multitasking is practically a degree requirement. Surely, that’s the test group we should be analyzing? Let’s see what happens to entire generations of students graduating from advanced degree programs. Will they be less smart, attentive, focused or creative than their predecessors, and how will we know that, anyway? What methodology best serves the truth sought by our questions? And what about the mountain of research that now points to a strong correlation being healthy (Alzheimer-resistant) brains and active brain activity, such as doing crosswords or playing chess and bridge? How can we know for sure whether doing one kind of brain activity is better for us than two or three kinds of brain activity? How do we measure the quality of such activity? By memory alone?

Technology demands we multitask — and vice versa – and I doubt we can turn back to a time when single-task activity characterized our common behavior. What really fascinates me is how much attention we seem to be giving to testing the alleged myths of multitasking. Even a cursory scan of the environment reveals just how much research is engaged in the very question, and how much of it reinforces the theme that multitasking is memory-destroying, skill depleting, and cell denying. Are scientists paranoid about their single-mindedness?

Yet I have been to several conferences in the last few years at which speakers have been arguing that the very physiology of the brain is being altered by multitasking activities. These are grand claims, none of which I have read much hard science to support, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we were adapting rapidly to the demands we are making of our grey matter. Would you? Or are you paying attention?

I am an inveterate multitasker, and perhaps falsely proud of being so, but I draw the line at texting while driving and at polygamy. That said, I have composed this blog while checking my email, listening to a news story about the alleged hazardous relationship between text messaging and spelling, and sipping a delicious cup of ‘calm’ tea. What have you been doing for the last four minutes?


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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