As far as manual dexterity tasks go, patting your head is not up there in the top ten most difficult. Neither is rubbing your belly. But if you’ve ever tried patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time you’ll know it’s a bit harder than it looks. Disassociating the actions of one hand from the actions of the other requires a certain amount of conscious attention. This is what makes multitasking difficult. Dividing your attention between multiple active tasks at the same moment takes not just the sum attention required for each of the individual tasks added together, but a whole extra bit of thinking about which action happens next. So when you’re lighting a cigarette while driving or palming the ace of diamonds while stacking your poker chips you’ve got to take into account the additional thought involved so you don’t get caught out and end up in a ditch.
You can try out your multitasking skills in a safer environment by playing this little game: http://www.notdoppler.com/multitask.php
Multitasking is an example of very quick context-switching. Context switching is when lots of things are going on at once, but you’re only actually concentrating on one of them at a time. Like right now I’m writing a blog post while playing on Facebook, while smoking a cigarette, while browsing YouTube for interesting music. I’m not actually typing this at the same moment I’m clicking on the link to the Beasite Boys music video, but it’s all going on at the same time.
This is what computers do, they just happen do it so fast that it appears that everything is happening at once. Isn’t it downloading a file, playing a music track, and playing Farmville all at the same time? Not really, it’s downloading a few tiny bits of your pirated movie, then sending the next 0.01 seconds of “Ice Ice Baby” to the speakers, then redrawing the game screen, then looking to see if you’ve moved the mouse, then getting the next bit of the download and so on.
Of course, both I and the computer have to keep the current state of all these tasks in memory the whole time, so while we’re switching our attention from one thing to the next we have to remember where we got to, otherwise I’ll burn my fingers on my cigarette and the computer will let the music skip. It’s a bit like juggling; you only have to actually be catching or throwing one ball at a time, but you need to know where they all are, or you’ll miss one.
Shara Lin is a talented musician that can do a pretty good demonstration using a piano, harp and violin:
A lot of girls get frustrated with guys because boys just can’t seems to get a grip on this multitasking stuff. A lot of boys use that as an excuse to stick to a one track mind philosophy. Oddly, when the scientists did some tests they found that, yes, actually girls are better at it.
Who’d have thought it?