Thursday, May 28, 2009

Humans Can Multi-task!

Lifestyle gurus these days love talking about how multi-tasking is a myth, that people can't multi-task, but instead, just switch their attention rapidly between different tasks. And therefore we should do only one thing at a time.


That is multi-tasking. At least that's how computers do multi-tasking. (ok, there are exceptions, especially as computers take advantage of multiple processors) but that is by and large how all personal computers have handled multi-tasking. (that was one of the first lessons I learned about computers back when we were first upgrading from DOS to Windows 3.0... not even 3.1).

And if that kind of multi-tasking has worked for computers, I don't see why that's an argument that humans can't do the same.


James Lin said...

Seems to me that your conclusion should be computers can't multitask rather than that humans can.

Multiple CPU cores are becoming the norm among modern computers anyway. Not that it matters; you also could say that the human brain is a massively parallel computer, so it's always multitasking (you have to do a lot of different things to, say, walk upright).

Really, the lifestyle gurus aren't so much saying that humans can't multitask; it's that they can't perform multiple cognitive tasks *well*. Context-switching is expensive, and it seems totally plausible to me that the penalty is much higher for humans than for computers.

HoBs said...

yeah, on computers, its not even clear that multiple cpus really means multitasking since it depends on how the instructions are split up between the cpus. and yes, good point that the human brain could well be massively parallel.

i agree that it is quite possible that switching costs are quite high, but the gurus so far have not provided any real evidence.

the evidence they are thinking about is that attention can only be focused on one thing or the other, but as you said, the brain doesn't require attention to do most of what it does. (like walking) and arguably the brain more creatively solves problems when you are not attentive.