With life getting more demanding and hectic all the time, it seems there's only one way to cope—multitasking. Gurus and life hackers make a living telling us how to get better at it. But can we actually multitask?
The term was first used in the '60s to describe computer performance. The human brain, though, is not a computer. And human attention is a very limited resource. Some psychologists model visual attention as being like a spotlight. It can only be shone in one direction at any one time. Our primary focus—what we're paying most attention to—is like the brightly-lit area in the center of the beam. It can also be understood as being like a zoom lens—we can choose to narrow our focus to concentrate in detail or widen it to be aware of more things simultaneously. But we can't be zoomed in and out at the same time.
這個詞第一次出現是在 1960 年代，用來描述電腦的性能。但人類的腦袋和電腦不一樣。人類的專注力是非常有限的資源。有些心理學家模擬出視覺注意力的樣子，就像聚光燈一樣。一次只能照亮一個方向。我們主要的專注力－－我們最專心注意的地方－－就像光束中心最亮的那個區域。也可以將視覺注意力理解成變焦鏡頭－－我們可以選擇縮小焦距，專心在細節上，或擴大焦距，同時留意多項事物。但我們沒辦法將焦距同時拉近又拉遠。
Even though we're constantly receiving a huge amount of information from our senses, it's only possible for a small amount to make it through to conscious awareness. Watch the next section very carefully, and pay particular attention to how many balls bounce in the circle.
How many can you count? Seven, right? But did you also notice that little dinosaur? What about the changing shape of the circle? Or the smiley face on one of the balls? This shows just how powerful focused attention is. Being able to filter out irrelevant detail is an amazingly useful tool. But it means we can miss things that are right under our noses—an effect known as inattention blindness.
You can see this very clearly in the famous invisible gorilla experiment. When asked to concentrate exclusively on how often basketball players in white pass the ball, most people completely miss the gorilla walking across the screen and beating his chest.
We just don't have the capacity to process everything at once. This is a particular problem when we try to multitask. We can switch attention from one task to another and back again. But when attention is overloaded, we miss things. And the result is nearly always that we perform tasks less well than we would doing them one at a time.
It's only truly possible to do two things at once if they require different sets of cognitive resources. For example, it's totally possible to read a book and listen to music at the same time, which would suggest that driving while talking on the phone is not a problem as long as it's a hands-free phone.
It's not that simple, though. Research has shown that, while talking on the phone, we have a tendency to create mental images. And this uses the same visual resources needed for driving. And if visual resources become too stretched, it's perfectly possible for a driver to look directly at a hazard—but, just like with that little dinosaur, fail to see it. Not everything will make it through to conscious awareness. So multitasking makes us at best, inefficient, and at worst, downright dangerous. If you're feeling like you should be doing 17 things at once, remember, that's just not the way your brain is wired.
但其實沒這麼容易。研究顯示，我們在講電話時容易在腦海中產生畫面。而這運用到跟開車一樣的視覺資源。如果視覺資源被拉到極限，駕駛者就很容易直接碰到危險－－但就像那隻小恐龍一樣，我們會沒看到危險。並不是所有事情都會成功變成自覺意識。所以一心多用最好的狀況是讓我們做事沒效率，最差的狀況是直接遇到極端的危險。所以如果你覺得你必須同時處理 17 件事情，要記得，我們的腦袋並不是這樣運作的。
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