We have all heard that the secret to life’s success is to do a lot of multitasking. Meaning, I suppose, that whatever you are doing, learn to do two or three things simultaneously, in order to get ahead and be successful. It doesn’t matter that there are studies that show that humans can’t multitask, and never have.
Certainly we can see and hear at the same time, and we can walk and breathe at the same time. But it doesn’t mean that we can process two different sets of data in order to create action. What we are very good at is “fast switching”.
I didn’t say that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, but we can, because both walking and chewing have certain aspects of “automatic mode” in terms of thinking. A drummer can beat out a rhythm with her left hand while steadily beating another rhythm with the right, but they are in automatic mode with thought controlling only the beginning and the end.
The classic teenage response is that “I can listen to music and study at the same thine.” This is only true if one action becomes automatic with no thought behind it. If the music becomes “background noise”, then perhaps study can occur. But if a lyric catches your ear, then suddenly you are pulled out of your text or essay, and you are listening and not studying.
I don’t know if any study of schizophrenia shows the ability to multitask, but at least the theory that it takes two minds to have two thoughts simultaneously is correct.
So, how fast is our “switching” ability? How many eggs can we juggle before the entire cartoon is destroyed?
Well, it depends. Most nerve signals travel at roughly .3 seconds from brain to extreme limb. However, most can blink an eye in .1 of a second. That’s three times faster, (however, brain and eye are considerably closer together). We are now only talking about the signal to move, not the assessment and calculations that are necessary to consider the action. All that takes additional time.
My wife and I enjoy playing cards together, generally with another couple. I should say that the enjoyment is not equally and consistently shared. It has evolved from playing games of clever strategy, with bidding, or calculating odds- to games of action and stress, as the situation is fast paced and in constant flux.
One particular game requires that you play a solitaire situation in front of you, turning three cards from the deck in order to see what can be played. That can be stressful if there is a time element in order to beat the other players. They have their own decks and their own game of solitaire. Add to that stress by playing the aces on piles in front of you along with all the other players, collectively.
I have my solitaire game in front of me but the aces piles are constantly changing. If I concentrate on my hand, looking to play cards, I am aware of the cards I need, except on the ace pike everyone else is playing and what is needed is in flux.
My neurons are firing, but often they are firing on old information. I’m looking for a two of clubs and the pile is now at the seven of clubs.
The hand must be faster, but the data behind the movement has to be even faster, and keep track of the changes.
What is curious to me is that often my wife is holding a card in her playing hand, waiting for me to recognize that I have a play, then tenths of a second after I play she puts hers down. Spooky! How does she know what I am going to play before I even turn my cards?
I can understand how someone is faster. Both are ready, the shot is fired and one person crosses the line first. But she crosses the finish line before I can tie my track shoes.
I used to play racquetball. When I played younger faster players I would win only if I played smarter. But what I f they are faster, smarter, and have psychic powers?
Multitasking? Apparently I can chew gum and walk. But I cannot rotate through a deck of cards three at a time, play solitaire, and watch as everyone keeps playing in the ace piles.
We call the game “Squeal”, maybe because of the joy of winning, maybe because of the sound of my losing.