Dr. Earl Miller is a smart guy, and he can teach you something really important about your brain. What he knows will definitely improve your career and life, and could even save a life. And, if you’ve got a few seconds, there’s a cool little experiment you can do to demonstrate this to yourself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me introduce you to him.
Earl Miller received his Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University, and has been the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT since 1995. That’s a long title, and I tried to help by not spelling out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Professor Miller has spent decades conducting important research on the brain, and has been the recipient of a variety of awards for his illuminating work. In brief, his work has helped show that the human brain does not think about more than one thing at a time.
“Tom, your brain is single-task.” I thought to myself he might be spying on me, but then he added, “Everyone’s brain is single-task.” I breathed a sigh of relief; thank goodness he’s been spying on everyone’s brain.
Here’s how Dr. Miller knows this about the brain. He and his colleagues have studied how the brain actually works by having people think about different problems while those same people were having their brains imaged.
Dr. Miller explained that the way the brain actually works, is that it switches quickly from focusing on one task to another. Miller explains, “You’re not paying attention to two thing simultaneously, you’re actually switching between them really quickly.” And there’s real inefficiency in having to remember where you were each time you approach either task.
He gives an example of what many of us do all to often, writing an email while talking on the phone at the same time. You may think you’re actively engaged with both tasks, but the reality is, you’re only focused and working on one at time. “You simply can’t think deeply about two things at once.”
“People don’t multitask well,” Dr. Miller said. And interestingly, his research shows that people who think they’re good at multitasking, are actually the worst. “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
It’s certainly easy to fall into the trap of trying to do two (or more) things at once. With a nearly constant stream of emails, ringing phones, meetings, hallway conversations, people dropping by with urgent questions; not to mention social media or news access – it’s no wonder we end up trying to multitask.
But the research shows that multitasking always results in the tasks taking longer to complete than if they would have been completed one at a time. In addition to taking longer, multitasking often results in mistakes, which of course cause new problems and even greater delays. Said another way, “Multitasking means screwing up several things at once.”
Sometimes the mistakes are minor, such as inadvertently including the wrong person in an email. Other times, the mistakes can be huge. I don’t know if multitasking contributed to NASA using the metric system to build a satellite while their partner Lockheed Martin used the English system. But the oversight caused the $125 million satellite to be lost in space. Undoubtedly these were very smart people working very hard on innumerable complex issues.
I asked Dr. Earl Miller what we could do to improve our thinking, and he gave these suggestions:
1) Plan to Focus. In other words, set aside a time of the day when you will be heads-down thinking.
2) Remove Distractions. Consider, turning off the mobile phone, closing down the Internet, or putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
3) Take a Break. When you’re tired and your thinking is no longer productive, be sure to give your brain a rest or shift focus.
I promised Dr. Miller to include an important mention of something very important, and that is the danger of using a phone while driving. He stressed a few times to me during the conversation, that research shows people miss about 50% of things while simultaneously driving and talking on the phone. And that is even true with a hands-free phone set. It’s simply a matter of how the human brain works. Language requires brainpower, and engaging in conversation requires focus. The admonishment from Dr. Miller (who knows how we think) is, “Do not talk on the phone while driving.”
Interestingly, having a conversation with another person in the car is not as dangerous, since that fellow passenger is in synch with traffic and weather demands, and can actually act as another set of eyes – while a person on the phone is oblivious to such matters.
So, what about that simple little experiment1 to show your brain can only “think” about one thing at a time?
While sitting, lift your right leg a few inches off the floor and move your foot in a clockwise circular motion. While continuing to move your foot in a clockwise circle, put your right hand in the air and trace the number 6.
Did you notice what just happened? Your foot reversed its motion and started moving in a counterclockwise motion.
I tried this a few times, and each time ended with my rotating my foot in the wrong direction. Once accidently kicked the dog. I’m glad this didn’t involve calculating trajectory paths for satellites.
To learn more about Dr. Miller and his research on the brain.
NPR interview and podcost
The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT
1 Note: Of course you can learn to do more than one thing at once (walking and juggling), but Dr. Miller’s work is concerned with critical thinking.