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Brain rules and multi-tasking

I'm glad it is not a personal mental deficiency - my inability to multi-task.

According to Brain Rules by John Medina, multi-tasking is a myth.  (Great summary, including short video clips from accompanying DVD here at the Presentation Zen website. My personal copy of the book and DVD are on order!)

According to Medina, multitaskers take twice as long to accomplish things and have double the error rate. Check out the amusing video from YouTube (My trusted source of all things scientific.) and his Facebook! entry on the topic.



I thought of this yesterday when attending a presentation by Michael Wesch of The Machine is Using Us fame. (Great presenter and message, BTW). At the end of the keynote, I had an entire page of handwritten notes, which has become unusual for me. Why?

My laptop's battery was dead and the lecture hall had zero electrical outlets. I could not do my usual thing of checking e-mail, reading rss feeds, or Twittering and half attending to the lecture. Now Wesch's talk was probably interesting enough to suck my eyeballs away from the computer screen, but then again, maybe not.

One of the things that I seriously question is the conversation about "enhancing" presentations with live blogging, back-channel discussions, streaming on-screen chat, and other noxious goings-on. Are these things actually valuable or are we doing them because we're nerds and we can?

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Reader Comments (10)


Interesting question... I kind of relate this to the ticker/sidebar issue with stations like CNN and ESPNews. So many extras are thrown onto the screen how do you focus on any one thing, let alone the most important? With an "enhanced" presentation where people are going off on their own tangents it is very likely important points are being missed along the way (assuming the speaker has valuable points). In a traditional presentation, perhaps some of these tools could be used after the fact more effectively-when everyone involved has gotten the full story.
On another thought line though, perhaps we should be asking (pressuring?) speakers to move away from the traditional presenter/audience relationship (one talks, the rest listen). With IM tools, blogging, tweet, and other tools that make it so much easy to collaborate and interact how about we re-structure the presentation so those tools can be used during the presentation for everyone's benefit? Along those same lines, I wonder if the same finding will be true for "multi-tasking" when this next generation grows up. Having lived in a world where there is never just one source of information/communication, are their brains developing differently?


May 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Of course when we talk about multi-tasking we're really talking about task switching but I'm sure your sources and video acknowledge that (I haven't look at them yet, too busy reading RSS, twittering, et al)

Actually last week I sat in Stephen Downes' session where he intentionally used a back channel, as he said, to create his slides. Each post lasted on the screen for 10 seconds. During his one hour talk, over 900 comments, images were posted. While it was distracting to many, it added an opportunity to engage in his presentation that only occurred previously by making hand written notes.

There's nothing wrong with that but I think the discussions around back channeling might mirror discussions about technologies. Yes, we do it because we can but it is an evolving instructional strategy. It needs some refining, it might not be suitable in all context but I'm personally working through these issues and hopefully others are as well.

The concept of participatory engagement is good. How we make that happen, is still in question.

May 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

@ Adamn

The talk/listen format has its place. It is far too widely used currently, but used well (think the TED talks) it can be inspiring and informative.

Not sure at all about this new generation. I know they like to THINK they can multi-task.

Appreciate the comments.

@ Dean

Sequential attention switching is also what Medina says we must do. Maybe those who can do it most quickly are those who are considered multi-taskers.

I have no issue with audience participation/conversation/interaction. In fact, I believe most effective workshop presenters have always made this a critical part of their craft. A BER speaking coach once advised me that you never go more than 15 minutes without some form of "activity" in a workshop (pair and share, quiz, reflection, etc.)

But I believe we are doing a disservice to both our participants and to ourselves in providing concurrent "attention-getters."

Read Medina's research. You'd find it interesting.

All the best and thanks, as always, for the insight,


May 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Have you looked at any of the research on multitasking and dual-tasking summarized on the Eide Neurolearning blog? For example, in one post they say, "It discusses the interesting observation that at least in some cases, less brain work is used for solving two tasks at once, then the two tasks separately (underadditivity)."

I haven't read Medina's research. Does he address this research that the Drs. Eide are talking about? I'm sure that error rates do increase for some tasks, as he says, but I'm quite skeptical that any research on the brain and learning applies to all tasks in all situations. The video doesn't acknowledge any conditions the research, but offers them as a blanket statement. Is the book better about providing the context for the research and when it can be applied?

May 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChristy Tucker


I guess the issue comes in the definition of multi-tasking. Looking at Medina's research, it seems he equates multi-tasking with interruptions. I agree that self-imposed interruptions such as checking email or making grocery lists during a presentation acts as interruptions. However, back channeling, when done correctly is simply a form of engagement with content. As you wrote notes, you were simply back channeling with yourself. That's not necessarily bad but having the opportunity to "write notes collaboratively" is a richer experience.

That said, I think there are few presenters who can capture your total attention for longer than 10 minutes. So when my mind wanders, it's nice to have others bring me back closer to the ideas but posing incites and questions.

I'm not sure if you're advocating the elimination of back channeling. Back channeling has been going on for's simply more pervasive now. I think it needs constant refinement but the fact that we can now openly engage in content and ideas with others instantly, I think has value....but I could be wrong.

May 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

I am very much satisfied by the thoughts of the above thinker. Multitasking is a more time consuming and increases the error rate. This makes our work more difficult.

May 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFrancesco

I picked up a copy of this book on Friday night after reading about it on Presentation Zen. It is pretty good. The videos capture the basics of each brain rule. The attention rule i find fascinating. Our school allowed administrators, counselors, deans, presidents office, and business office to add IM this year to help facilitate communication. I find myself as the principal having to log off and hide out in an abandoned office to get anything that is absolutely necessary done. I find if i give myself a couple hours of no phone, emial, IM, cell phone, and office drop buys that I am much more productive.

As I plan my calendar with my secretary for the next school year we are blocking off 1.5 to 2 hours each day for my actual work to get done sans interruptions. We'll see how it goes.

I am loving Brain Rules as well. Lots of insights for education.

May 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie A. Roy

Great book! I attempted a summary slideshow of the book but never quite finished it!

May 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Bogush

@ Christy,

Medina is pretty specific about two tasks that require "attention" unlike walking and chewing gum.

I haven't received the book yet, so it will be interesting to see if he addresses the "underadditivity" idea. I did notice the Eide's called it a "proposal" not a research finding.

All the best and thanks for the link!


@ Dean,

Like any tool, I am sure back-channeling can be used both well and poorly. It drives me nuts!

I think it is interesting that you say a speaker rarely holds your attention for more than 10 minutes at a time. Do have the same limited attention span to other not interactive information sources such as non-fiction books, videos, audio-tapes or podcasts?

Great post on your site too, BTW. This is really an fuzzy area and I am not done thinking about it!

All the best,


@ Charlie,

Thanks for the endorsement of the book. Can't wait for my copy to come. I thought the video might be good for staff development workshops too.

All the best. Oh, I think you can run, but you can't hide!


@ Paul,

Good start on the slide show. Hope you share it when complete. The pictures are very affecting!

Looking forward to getting my copy of the book.

Your bald, cigar-chewing buddy,


May 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I too was at Dr. Wesch's presentation last week. For the keynote, I live blogged the presentation. For his breakout session, my laptop went dead and I had to write notes the old fashioned way. I felt fairly engaged in both sessions, as he is an excellent presenter, with facinating information. However, since the conference, I have yet to go back and review the notes I wrote on paper, but I have visited my blog a few times to review what I wrote, and to edit some. I also started following Wesch on Twitter, and discovered another blog post of the conference.
I definitely am adding Medina's book to my summer reading list, but I think that multi-tasking is here to stay. Our task is to teach kids to do it well!

May 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermicwalker

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