Are You Multitasking Your Life Away? Cliff Nass at TEDxStanford

Are You Multitasking Your Life Away? Cliff Nass at TEDxStanford


Translator: Ilze Garda
Reviewer: Jeong-Lan Kinser Personal life is hard. When I was 7 years old,
there was a girl I really liked, but I didn’t know how to tell her. I decided I would learn from a 10-year-old
who seemed unusually swave. (Laughter) He went up to the girl’s porch
and drew this: “I love you.” He knocked on the girl’s door,
pointed and said, “I did this for you.” And the girl was thoroughly entranced. I decided to follow the same idea, but wanted to show
that I mastered words as well as art. So I drew this, “I love you,”
a female sheep. (Laughter) I knocked on the girl’s door,
she came out and I said, “I did this for you.” She screamed and ran back into the house. It turned out that she had thought I had sacrificed the eyes
and the heart of a sheep to prove my devotion. (Laughter) The moral was obvious: 10-year-olds
aren’t great emotional experts. You could draw the conclusions,
too, I suppose. Well, in the 21st century, we have a lot
easier ways to learn about emotion, in fact, we are blessed with one of the greatest experts
in social and emotional intelligence, Barney the Dinosaur. For those of you who don’t recognize him,
Barney was the character, incredibly popular
on children’s television for many years. And as famous as he was,
even more famous, was his theme song which started,
“I love you, you love me.” I’m sure it’s familiar to many of you. I decided it’d be important to deconstruct
that song, to understand exactly what lessons Barney could teach us
about social and emotional life. So, let’s start, and forgive
the quality of my singing. (Sings) I love you…
No, wait a minute! Here is someone who’s never met you,
will never meet you and is arguably fictional, yet he can claim his deep
and abiding love for you. But on the other hand, religious leaders
have been doing that for a long time, so maybe it’s not so troubling. Right, let’s keep going. (Sings) I love you, you love me… Wait! Someone who has never seen you can claim to understand
your deepest and most profound feelings, or are they that deep and profound if someone can know them
without knowing you, right? (Sings) I love you, you love me,
we’re a happy family… Stop! (Laughter) There’s lots of questions
about the changing American family, but whatever it is supposed to look like, it probably didn’t include
a purple dinosaur. (Laughter) And even more so,
it says that family can be people we never actually
have to interact with, OK? (Sings) I love you, you love me,
we’re a happy family, with a great big hug
and a kiss from me to you… Stop! (Laughter) I always thought the nice things
about hugs and kisses was the physicality, you actually touch someone, but now Barney tells us the mere indication,
the virtual is as good as the real. This isn’t just symbolism,
that’s all there is. (Sings) I love you, you love me,
we’re a happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me, won’t you say you love me too… Stop! Barney is teaching us
that we can express our deepest feelings without ever worrying
whether the other person hears it. In fact, we should throw
our feelings out into the world, and whoever hears some,
is just fine, OK? The second verse is even more frightening, (Laughter) starts the same (Sings) I love you, you love me… and in a line only
Mark Zuckerberg would write (Sings) We’re friends
as friends should be… Stop! Now, of all the models
of friendship you imagined, you probably didn’t include one
that involves never interacting, or seeing, or talking
with the person who is your friend. Who are the best friends?
Facebook friends. OK, so this is the world of emotion. So we now have to ask the question:
“If 10-year-olds won’t be experts, if Barney is not an expert,
how will we learn about emotion?” Now, you may think
that’s a misguided question because maybe the idea
emotional life is hard, really isn’t true. After all, we can all tell
that this guy is very happy, even if you ever looked like that,
you’d need plastic surgery, he still seems quite content. Conversely, this guy is really mad, the eyebrows and the mouth
tell the whole story. So, clearly, we can recognize emotions. In fact, we don’t even need
faces to indicate emotion, we can tell that the guy on the left
is happier and more excited than the person on the right,
who is clearly sad and subdued. And in fact, the brain is devoted, in fact, structurally obsessed
with emotion. We have parts of the brain
devoted to positive emotions, to negative emotions, to detecting, producing,
managing emotion in faces, in voices, in words, in body postures, in all sorts of other things. So, really our brains are
really good at emotion, all we have to do, is to pay attention,
and to think about what we see. Well, paying attention to other people
was not really a challenge to most of human history. We’ve now confronted
a revolution which starts in the early and middle stages
of the Industrial Revolution, which is partial… oh, I’m sorry. So, emotional intelligence
requires attention. But, as I mentioned, to achieve
that attention we have to look. And the challenge to that is something
called Partial Media Displacement. Very simply, that’s a theory that says: “Every time a new technology
or service appears, the first thing that happens
is pretty obvious. It steals time
from other information services.” Movies stole time from books,
radio stole time from movies, television stole time from radio, internet stole time
from television, et cetera. But media are seductive, so after they steel time
from other information activities, they also steel time
from non-media activities. So our day planner get’s more
and more filled with media. But what happens when we run out
of non-media time to steal from? At that moment, there was
an inflection point in history. One thing that could be done was to say: “OK, no more time to steal
from non-media, from now on we’re going
to replace media one-on-one.” But that isn’t what happened. Instead, we did whatever we do
when we have too many things to do, and too little time to do it: we started to double-book media. But the rate of media, new media,
gradually accelerated, and then increasingly accelerated. So what do we do then?
Did we give up? No. We triple- and quadruple-book media. So, now we find that the top 25%
of Stanford media students, media users, for example, use four or more media at one time
whenever they are using media. That means
whenever they are writing a paper, they are also listening
to music, using Facebook, watching YouTube, texting, et cetera. So, there’s been a tremendous change in the nature of paying
attention with media. What are the consequences
of those changes? Well, it turns out that chronic media users
pay a strong cognitive price. First of all, they find it very difficult
to filter out irrelevant information. Second, they have serious problems
with managing working memory. They’re also suckers for relevancy: give them something irrelevant,
they cannot help but look at it. (Laughter) And finally, and perhaps most surprising,
they’re even bad at multitasking. They can’t actually manage
doing multiple things at one time, even though they do it all the time. Now, what’s going on here? Is this merely an accident,
is this merely some random change? No, it’s actually changing the way
the human brain works. So, this is the brain scan,
a functional magnetic resonance imaging of high and low multi-taskers
when asked to do an irrelevant task. The little white dot you see – it’s on your right,
but it’s a left prefrontal cortex – is the extra brainpower
used by low multi-taskers, people who don’t multitask,
when asked to do an irrelevant task. These huge swathes of yellow you see, [is] the extra mental activity
used by high multitaskers during something utterly irrelevant
to the task at hand. Now, there’s a cognitive price for that. Namely, that we have only
one storehouse of brain activation. So, if you’re spending more than
that mental energy on irrelevant tasks, you are not focusing on the relevant. This brain activity suggests
that it’s not only true of media; what we think is happening is that people are generating habits
of mind that are a distraction, and it makes those interactions
with other people an invitation to distraction as well. So, here we have people
having a meal together (Laughter) here we have people enjoying the beach, and here we have the canonical play date. (Laughter) Now, this type of activity, people sitting side by side doing
unrelated things right next to each other, is described by psychologists
as parallel play. It’s a healthy developmental step
if you are two to four years old. (Laughter) However, by the time you are 6 or 7, you’re supposed to learn to play
together and to interact, and that playing together among
elementary, junior high, and high school, and college, and adults, helps us to learn the deeper
and more profound emotional rule. Now, as we’re playing together, we are looking at each other,
we are learning from each other, and because we share an environment, we can understand
appropriate emotional responses. But if you’re doing this, then if anyone of these four people
manifests emotion, we can’t learn anything because they are
each in their own virtual world. You might argue that’s so [unclear],
that’s so 20th century. In the 21st century,
we’ve solved the way around all this and that it textual communication
and social media. Let’s see what happens there. Well, the first thing to know
is that text is intrinsically emotionless. The human brain has not evolved
to detect emotion from text, and to manifest emotion richly
is going to take skill, that’s why we have
[unclear] writers, for example. We don’t get that with media. A second problem with social media
is that it works too slowly. The human face is remarkably mobile. In fact, it can change emotions
on the order of a tenth of a second. If you are not paying attention,
you’re not going to notice that. And if you are not thinking hard,
you’re not going to know what to do. And, if you see a new emotion,
you can’t say to the person: “I see an emotion, let me go off, think about what to do,
and come back to you.” With text, we can be lazy
in our emotional life, leading to an emotional atrophy. Another problem with social worlds is that they have become
the happiest places on earth. (Laughter) Facebook is filled with
smiling and happy people, positive comments get much more likes
than negative comments, and there are strong norms
against saying too many negative things. But negative things
are the really hard ones, the really important ones to learn. As Tolstoy said: “All happy families are alike.
And all happy emotions are alike. But each unhappy family
is unhappy in a different way. And each unhappy emotion
is unique and complex.” If we don’t get practice doing that, we are not going to learn
to have healthy emotional lives. Do we see this playing out? So, the answer is yes, we did a study
of 3,400 8-12-year-old girls, and for the first time
we looked at media use in general, we looked at multitasking,
using multiple media at the time, we looked at face-to-face communication, and we also looked at social
and emotional development. The results were sobering. Kids who were heavy multi-taskers,
showed a remarkable number of deficits. First of all, they did use media
when face-to-face, they did distract themselves
when with other kids, they felt less normal about themselves, they had more friends who their parents
thought were bad influences, and they had less sleep
which is associated with a number of social, emotional,
as well as cognitive deficits. Importantly, online media use
showed the exact same effects. Was there anything
that helped kids develop emotionally? The answer was yes. Face-to-face communication
is absolutely magical. Kids who are heavy
face-to-face interactants, focused on the other person,
not other media, they showed greater social success,
felt more normal about themselves, had fewer friends as bad influences,
and got more sleep. Now, you might argue:
“Well look, there are face-to-face kids, there are online kids, kids who are
online are retreating from social life.” But that’s just not the case. It turns out there is no relationship between the amount of face-to-face time
and the amount of online time. Kids who are heavy face-to-face users
and heavy online users did perfectly fine. Conversely, kids who are social isolates, who don’t use a lot face-to-face
or online media do poorly. Kids who have high face-to-face
interactions, but don’t go online, do fine and kids who are heavy online,
but don’t do face-to-face, are hoped for savior,
unfortunately, do badly. So, the moral of the story
here is really clear. We have to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back a saying
we used to hear all the time and now never hear:
look at me when I talk to you. Thank you. (Applause)

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