At the end of 2011, the media was buzzing about the harmful effects of multitasking and the evils of divided attention. The fire storm started when a study done at Stanford, revealed that when we do multiple things at once, we don’t filter and sort information as rapidly, and our ability to focus on one selected detail is diminished.

Great.... There are rare moments in my life when I have one task that I need to complete in isolation. Taking things one at a time is not always an option. Just when I decided that, most of the time, I was simply not going to perform at an optimal level, I read a book by Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It. Dr. Davidson took a different approach to Stanford’s findings. Here are two lines from her book (trying my best to keep them in context):

• I’m suggesting that the most important finding from this test is not that multitaskers are paying attention worse, but they are paying attention differently!
• In our global, diverse, interactive world, where everything seems to have another side, continuous, partial attention may not only be a condition of life but a useful tool for navigating a complex world. From: Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson.

Insert huge sigh of relief here. What Dr. Davidson proposes and what is so freeing, is that we need to look at how our brains function from within our own busy, complicated, multi-layered lives. However, if we merely change the context and change the setting we don’t change the results. So, maybe change the question…?

OK…. let’s change the questions.

How do we adapt to our complicated world filled with so many messages fighting for our attention? How do we sort through all those “distractions”, decide what is important, and find a way to put them all together without missing things we need to live well?

A group of computer science researchers seem to understand that we, like computers, must multitask to, at the very least, understand and integrate what is going on around us. They get it and are now looking at this proposal: maybe “chronic multitaskers” are taking in bits and pieces of everything and sharing all that information among tasks – finding relationships between pieces of information and distributing what is needed to complete all tasks at hand, not one single task. They seem to propose that brains, like computers, share expertise across tasks, learning what is important, useful and relevant by testing multiple sources (Duke Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering). If artificial intelligence can be programmed to learn from what is happening now and use that info to solve problems and develop strategies for future use, why can’t we program our brains to do the same?

All this talk about multi-tasking being bad for performance is task oriented, not brain oriented. Our brains crave activity and are continually problem solving. One key to making sense out of the world, effectively, is letting go and allowing our brains to do what they do best – put things in categories, process, create, and act. There is so much left to study but the bottom line just might be that singular focus and attention to one task at a time could be over-rated in today’s information heavy world. Maybe the best way to function is on multiple channels, in the context of everyday life.

Another research group, this one studying brain imaging, found something really interesting… completely by accident. They were testing how fMRIs (images of the electrical and chemical activity in the brain) look during specific kinds of tasks – what areas of the brain light up, what activity slows down, and other related things. Yes, they found variations in the images when subjects were performing a variety of tasks. However, they also found increased brain activity in between tasks – when participants were doing nothing. This spurred more imaging research focused on participants who were not doing anything. So far, that growing body of knowledge seems to suggest two things: 1) increases in overall activity and 2) increases in coordinated activity in more parts of the brain are apparent when the participants said they were “not thinking about anything” than when they were “doing something”. Does that mean our brains function better when we don’t direct activity?

Change the context; change the setting; and change the question: what can we do to better function in our multifaceted, multilayered, demanding world?

Take your world and tasks in context and let your brain do what it does best. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, Find the Difference puzzles at help you see the details of life, all in context, while you solve a problem. Practice what you need: problem solve in context.

Author's Bio: 

With over twenty-five years of expertise as a strategist, business development executive, and organizational behaviorist, Ms. Curran has developed a reputation as an exceptional business and personal development coach. Ms. Curran’s passion and area of intense study and exploration has been the connection between the brain and daily functioning. This passion spurred her latest project,, a photo-based series of thinking puzzles and games that help work around the effects of age, disease, or injury (TBI) on cognitive functioning and quality of life. Ms. Curran’s primary focus is on using a wide variety of games – those that inspire players to imagine, use strategies, and focus to succeed -- as a path to better thinking, better functioning, and better quality of life.