Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

All this talk about multi-tasking is falling on deaf ears

We live in a time when the ability to do more than one thing at once is seen as a virtue. It's a skill that candidates on The Apprentice like to boast they have, in addition to an inability to speak in jargon-free sentences, or have even a modicum of personal charm.

If you can't multi-task, you might as well wheel your luggage out of Lord Sugar's office right now, before he blasts you for being a thicko in spite of your having an MBA in buying top hats for the Savoy and opening a beauty parlour - two of the main attributes he is apparently looking for this series.

But new evidence proves what many of us have surely suspected all along: it turns out that very few of us can really concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

Give us a good book to read and we acquire 'attentional deafness', also known as selective deafness. As our least-favourite teachers at school were fond of saying, there's nothing wrong with our hearing, we just aren't paying attention.

The tests, performed by scientists at University College London, focused on our capacity to hear a beeping sound when our attention was diverted by a visual puzzle: only two in 10 people could hear it. I wonder if the results would be replicated if it was a verbal sound they were listening out for instead of a beep.

Tests of my own suggest that the results would be identical: I live with an iPad owner and owning an iPad is constitutionally the same as losing 30% of your hearing, though not in an obviously measurable way.

iPad and smartphone users don't appear to be deaf, because they answer questions and respond exactly as they would if they were listening.

Yet moments after they have seemingly agreed on a trip to the pictures, they ask you what you're doing later and you realise that you have been talking to a hologram.

Perhaps our attentional deafness is dependent on the nature of the words we don't hear.

I, for example, am incapable of hearing the phrase, 'Does the dishwasher need emptying?' even if I am holding an ear trumpet to one side of my head.

I can't help it: my mind is on higher things. And when I say 'higher', I, of course, mean 'other'.

But when repeated phrases are used in my hearing, I can't concentrate on anything else. The words, 'The train now approaching Platform 1...' are enough to leave me unable to do anything other than nurture a deep and unforgiving hatred of the train and all who are on it.

Lucky, I live next to a station, or that might never have been discovered. And even luckier that they've now turned the announcements down, just moments before I chewed off my own arm.

So I envy those who can concentrate on writing and thinking when they're bombarded by sound. It must be incredibly liberating in a world which is full of traffic, sirens, car alarms and the rest, not to mind noise, but to welcome it as simply part of the urban landscape.

Although, perhaps, there are limits: a schoolgirl in Scotland has this week won the right to listen to music during her exams, because, apparently, she can't concentrate without it.

This strikes me as a slightly invented disorder. Surely learning to concentrate in environments you don't choose is part of what school should prepare us for?

I wouldn't have chosen to sit my exams in a freezing hall, but now I can write while wearing three cardigans and gloves, which will serve me well if I ever need to make notes in the Arctic. I bet it's lovely and quiet there.

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