Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Apes with Phones

So how evolved are humans, the species? Not much, we have to conclude.

Of course, most of us grew up hearing the heavy tones of the propagandistic made-in-God's-image (MIGI) chant. Hence, we as a species were similar to a great, perfect being. That bit of egotistic self-deception hangs like a sampler on the walls of our crania.

An amusing extrapolation of that came with computer and telecommunications technologies. When PC makers, Microsoft and their cohorts told us that we were by nature multitaskers, we said, "Sure. That's what I am."

After all, don't we all do that? As we are all above average, don't we fall in that group that can ace several challenges simultaneously?

Well, that sells a lot of copies of Microsoft Office. It makes managers demand incredible rates of productivity from otherwise lazy workers. It also makes us feel like chumps if we stumble trying to do it all at once.

By the bye, humans aren't the only ones who aren't that good at multitasking. Nearly all computers do it only by their version of sleight of hand. If there is one CPU, they switch among tasks when downtimes permit or priorities require. The difference is that they do it so fast and keep data about all the tasks in cache memory that it appears as though they are really working on several tasks at once.

Unfortunately those of us allegedly MIGI, we don't have an option of adding another processor chip. Nor do we have cached memory locations that never lose data. Hell, we can't even add more RAM.

The fascinating and very human aspect is how we cannot let go of the idea that we are each and all superb multitaskers. No matter how many times we fail at jumping from a spreadsheet to a phone call to a Word doc to preparing for a meeting, we seem to think that the goof-ups are the anomalies.

It appears that the vast majority of us are capable of doing one thing well at a time, or several things badly. There should be no shame in that, but it does suggest the corollary that we really have a long way to go on the evolutionary trail.

There's lots of evidence that supports our brains' limits. The one that prompted this musing came from research published in the journal Psychological Science and cited on Live Science.

Note: Don't bother tracking down the journal. You need a membership in the Association for Psychological Science to access it online.

Everyone, her brother and uncle just knows that she can drive and use a cellphone, multitask with lives at stake. It doesn't take much observation to conclude that they can't; only you can, right?

The study of 40 students with a driving simulator found that even the simplest tasks were more than we puny humans could handle, MIGI or not. Asked to say a word aloud or press a button when a light flashed in the rear mirror, while braking when brake lights appeared ahead proved our primitive status.

On average, the young, alert, fast-reacting students were 174 milliseconds slower braking when they did the simple tasks. That's 16 feet (enough for a tailgate crash) at 65 MPH.

The lag was the same for button or word too. (We surmise that this point that humans may perform tasks as computers, one at a time, but our switching rates are much, much slower.)

Researcher Jonathan Levy, UC San Diego, said, "This study joins a growing body of research showing that 'freeing up the hands' does not result in faster brake response times."

Unfortunately, our multitasking pretense can be fatal on the highway. Yet, we can look all about us to see that we are often delusional in our MIGI fantasies.

How evolved can a species be that would voluntarily torture its feet in stilettos or willingly wear ties?

Neckties strangle clear thinking. --Lin Yutang

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