Current college students are called “digital natives.” They are heralded as a new type of intellectual foragers, who can multitask better, gather information faster, and spread it with more efficiency than their adult peers. Nothing less true, affirms Deresiewicz in this scathing indictment of the bureaucratic ethos that dominates our classrooms and universities. The author of the more recent essay Generation Sell forewarns us, that the “digital natives” are stereotypes no better than the ones projected on the 18th century “noble savages” who were lionized for their supposed “virtues,” derived from our residual memories of Rousseau’s idea that “man was born free” (and good, and smart, and generous, etc…). Instead, they are the product of a product of mental and social regimentation that produces lego-like personalities, ready to confirm and fit in the social puzzle.
A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.
One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think.Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.