Are you being served?

I won't brag, but on Friday morning my kitchen feels like the control center at Cape Canaveral.

shopping 298.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
shopping 298.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Women are universally renowned for being pastmasters at it. It's second nature to Israelis, male and female, though women always claim some superiority. But the truth is, according to recent research, we are really not that good at multitasking and sometimes we are downright dangerous. If you want to see Israeli multitasking in action go to any store, bank or post office, and don't forget the various government ministries scattered throughout Jerusalem and of course there's the tax office in Givat Shaul. It's not that there aren't lines. Endless quiet orderly lines. That's the first surprise to a new immigrant. But now watch carefully... there are always those guys with the quick query who feel morally exempt from waiting. A moment of the clerk's time... who would begrudge them that? The clerk doesn't complain. They are already dealing with the colleague to their right, the colleague to their left, the person on the phone, and they are probably saying "hi" and catching up with an old army/school friend who is just passing by... then there is you. It's your turn and for some selfish reason you expect their undivided attention. But don't worry; you are not losing out. Israelis can do it. They can multitask like no other nation on earth. When I first came I was irritated by it. Don't get me wrong. Being served in England is infuriating. You may have their undivided attention but ask a question, any question... do you have knickers in size 14? What is the bank rate today? Ask anything and you will get a fixed gaze, focused attention and a response rate that gives you time to file your nails, check your lipstick or restyle your hair (if you would do such things in public in England). Israelis use multitasking as way of getting more out of life. Anyway, my expectations of claiming some one-on-one time with bank clerks and shop assistants has given way to transformation of my cultural mores. I was in Home Center in the Hadar Mall in Talpiot trying to slip in a very brief question while the assistant was engrossed with another customer. I just needed a yes/no answer. Was something in stock? No point waiting if it wasn't. Another customer was lurking, waiting to pose another query... nothing very demanding. The shop assistant flitted between three of us... no problem. No, it's not in stock. I trotted off, now continuing the phone conversation I was having on my mobile which I'd briefly interrupted with my quick query. I'm happy to have my life flowing faster because of all this multitasking. Can it really be an illusion? Am I not getting more done per minute, per hour of my life? I've become the queen of multitasking since arriving here. A wonderful Israeli friend, who helped me tentatively inch my way into life here when I first made aliya, recommended a cordless phone so I could speak and do a dozen things in the kitchen at the same time. I won't brag, but on Friday morning my kitchen feels like the control center at Cape Canaveral just before a rocket launch: Controls perfectly adjusted on simmering pots, chicken sizzling in the oven at optimal temperature, washing machine and dishwasher in operational modes and instant communication facilities provided by the phone wedged between shoulder and ear. Now show me a man who can do that. But in fact when I look at all this busy stuff going on round me, I realize that it's not so much multitasking as multi-layering. Different things initiated at different times that run simultaneously. Now while I'm writing this article my son expects some instant answers... can't do it without running the risk of agreeing to something that in a reflective instant I would instantly reject. So perhaps I wasn't so surprised with the research published earlier this year that showed that when we really try to do many things at the same time we slow down, and our efficiency drops. The research, at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee by Ren Marois and Paul Dux, gave two simultaneous challenges to a bunch of people. They described the tasks as "complex." See what you think. The task set involved pressing a particular computer key when hearing one of eight sounds and vocalizing a pre-chosen syllable when seeing one of eight possible images. Got that... press a button with a sound and say a word with a picture. Doesn't sound too difficult. Well, your brain can't handle it. It turns out, the experiment caused a "bottleneck" and the brain delayed its response time to allow each cue to be processed separately. The Vanderbilt researchers watched the different brain areas involved in these tasks "light up" using functional magnetic resonance imaging. This technique reveals which bit of the brain is being used by locating the areas that are using most oxygen. Sure enough, they found that key areas of the cortex couldn't process two things at the same time. The two things were put in a queue and dealt with one after the other and this created a delay in the responses. It has, of course, been given a name by neuroscientists: "Dual-task interference." The research has serious implications for people who do really complex things simultaneously. Move out of the kitchen and into the cockpit of a jet fighter, or go onto the battlefield where a soldier is receiving instructions through an earpiece while having to make quick combat decisions. Dual-task interference could be life-threatening. Now move into most cars in Israel. Think about speaking on the cell-phone and driving. Even using a hands-free doesn't make a difference, and anyway, how many Israeli drivers put two hands on the steering wheel? It has been estimated that in 2005 in the US, 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries were due to using a cell-phone while driving. One of the Vanderbilt team, Paul Dux, commented "Dual-task costs can be up to a second, and that's a long time when you are traveling at 60 miles per hour." That would mean traveling "blind" for about 30 meters if you were driving at 90 km/h. Scary, this multitasking.