Attention and multitasking in the modern world

The world that we live in today demands our attention… everywhere! But is it really possible to be everywhere and doing everything at once? So I conducted a small test to see if people’s attention can be spread across different things.

My test used my mum who is a cake decorator and my brother who is an avid car lover and I observed their media consumption habits whilst they were doing what they normally do on a daily basis.

What I discovered was very interesting.

Lets take my mum, every day at 4:30pm, shes watches the Bold and the Beautiful. But she doesn’t just watch it, she also works at the same time. This would be what we call multi tasking, however, researcher Linda Stone has coined a new term; continuous partial attention which requires a different mode of complex cognition.

“We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. ” (Stone, 2009)

In this case, mum needed to ensure that her cake was carefully sculpted whilst also keeping up with the events happening on TV, because once the scene has past, there is no going back to the scene.

However, what I did notice, is that she briefly stopped working once the music started to get intense–signifying a heated moment in the show. This is where all her attention was turned to the show and her hands started to slowly move away from the cake. This is where the show demanded her cognitive attention. But what does that mean for her work?

Stone states that even though continuous partial attention may feel like you are multi tasking and being productive, it also has a ‘shadow side.’ “Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.” (2009)

tv heads.jpg
Cruz. A, 2011 ‘Less is more,’ CC licence

Now my brother had a totally different kind of attention whilst interacting with multiple screens. My brother paused his YouTube video as soon as he received a text message. This was odd because I would have assumed that he would let the video play in the background whilst sending a message back.

By pausing the video, it revealed that he had an alternating attention where he can “efficiently shift attention between tasks demanding different cognitive skills”( Microsoft Canada, 2015).

It is here that the mind is always stimulated by being in different online states at once. By pausing the video, he is ensuring that his full attention is given to one task and the switches to another.

“Multi-screeners appear to be in a heightened neural state – they’re primed for more immersive experiences” (Microsoft Canada, 2015).

When I am watching my favourite TV shows and on Facebook at the same time, I exercise the same alternating attention. I would reply on my phone and then re-wind my show to the part where my attention was shifted away. This ensures that I am fully immersed within the environment of the show.

However, if I am watching a show that doesn’t interest me or is not one of my favourites, I don’t mind doing other things simultaneously.

This only works because “multitasking splits the brain. It creates something researchers have called “spotlights”. So all your brain is doing is trying to frantically switch between the activities eating, to writing emails and answering chat conversations” (Widrich, 2012).

Osler. W 1904, The principles and practice of medicine, CC licence

Different sections of the brain become focused on different tasks at hand, allowing us to effectively switch our attention between things of different cognitive complexity.

After conducting this study I have concluded that each person has different capacities of cognition whilst completing different tasks.

Next time your watching TV, take note of what other things your doing at the same time. Are you talking to a friend online, eating dinner, painting your nails or working? Notice how you interact with others and where your attention is drawn. You’ll find that what you observe will be something unexpected!


Microsoft Canada, 2015 ‘Attention Spans,’ Consumer Insights, pp. 36-42 <https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/649091/mod_resource/content/1/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf&gt;

Stone. L 2009, ‘Beyond Simple Multi-Taking: Continuous Partial Attention,’ Linda Stone, 20 November, viewed 1 October 2016 <https://lindastone.net/2009/11/30/beyond-simple-multi-tasking-continuous-partial-attention/&gt;

Widrich. L 2012, ‘What Multitasking does to our brains,’ Buffer Social,  26 June, viewed 1 October 2016 <https://blog.bufferapp.com/what-multitasking-does-to-our-brains&gt;



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