Multitasking and the Pleasures of Sensory Overload

"The one-ring circus led to the three-ring circus and then to the five-ring circus. If you play a video game you may be attacking and fighting off alien monsters as you plan your strategic thrust on the hidden imperial base while simultaneously trying to save your ambushed colleagues until the missile from nowhere blows you up. Attending a rave, you can detonate your brain on ecstasy, overloading your neural circuits with too much information as you wildly dance to techno whose sounds vibrate through your eardrums as the beat penetrates your bones.

"Lots of us enjoy sensory overload. It's a thrill when everything happens at once. Yet there are other reasons people like to multitask.

"Recently I visited the house of a twenty-something painter friend to work on a cross-cultural arts project between China and the United States. He was not in. His roommates were — two smart and funny women recently out of college. They invited me to wander in to their charmingly ramshackle house and sit down and converse. Sort of.

"I rolled into an old chair while the two sat across from me on the northern and southern ends of a yellow cloth sofa. Leaning forward, they glanced at me above matching laptops, which they continued to observe and type on as we talked.

"Because I come from a different generation, my first internal reaction was a vague feeling they were being rude, but I checked myself and soon realized that I was wrong. My two acquaintances were doing with me exactly what they did with their other friends — surfing the Net, typing e-mails, getting in an instant message or two as we talked. On occasion they did a search on some item I mentioned and then returned to the conversation.

"I asked them why they were writing, messaging, watching videos, and reading at the same time they were conversing. They were surprised by the question. They explained that what they were doing that afternoon was normal for them, entirely routine, and kind of enjoyable. Then one said she enjoyed performing several tasks at once because 'it's not boring.'

"In my clinical experience, boredom scares people. They begin to feel separate, untethered, lonely. When you're bored, all the internal demons lying in wait feel the itch to escape. Suddenly out of nowhere fly up the pains of the past, unquestioned fears of unmet expectations, anxiety about the future. People ruminate and worry as if they are standing in some endless airport security line, not knowing if they will be asked to walk through an unmarked door.

"In the United States we've been taught to work hard to avoid boredom. Boredom is the enemy. It's no surprise many kids write hundreds of text messages every day.

"My parents' generation had books, radio, eventually television. In those days long past, people generally knew their neighbors, often visited neighborhood friends, and strove to entertain themselves.

"Today people can be vicariously entertained anywhere they choose. Few spots on the globe lack multiple options for amusement. All you need are batteries and something with a silicon chip, whether it's a cell phone, a notebook, a handheld, or a sleek electronic reader. There are too many paths to immediate entertainment to take the time and imagine what has been lost."