From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published December 10, 2010 01:19 PM

The Caveman Multi-Tasker

Contrary to public opinion, multi-tasking is not a modern phenomenon. This uniquely human skill was around long before the era of electronic distractions. According to a study from Monica L. Smith, anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), it is multi-tasking itself that makes us human.


Many people (myself included) sneer at multi-tasking, believing that people should slow down and finish one thing before beginning another. It may be true that doing several things at once will prevent getting any one thing done correctly. However, even multi-tasking naysayers are guilty of it from time to time (talking while driving, eating while watching TV, etc).

In her book, "A Prehistory of Ordinary People", Smith looks at multi-tasking as a remarkable accomplishment for human evolution. It is our vast reserves of memory plus the ability to project the present into the future that separates us from the animals. These qualities enable people to handle competing tasks, putting one down, picking it up later, and following it through to completion.

Smith contends that it is multi-tasking that allowed our prehistoric ancestors to innovate and advance. "Great deeds have been made possible by the collective experience of people who multitasked through their everyday lives ... and then who devoted some extra portion of their time, energy and the fruits of their labor into coming up with fabulous inventions and building complex societies," she said.

The history of multi-tasking can be tracked back millions of years to when our ancestors first stood on two feet. Their hands were then free to do a number of things such as use tools, pick up and eat food, and handle their young. The eyes were also freed from staring at the ground and could look around for dangers and new opportunities.

Multi-tasking was essential for early hunters. Even making the tools for hunting which required the ability to project a future product from a present stone, demanded multi-tasking. Then while hunting, the hunters had to focus on the prey, while watching out for predators, guarding the children, and searching the ground for rocks to make more tools.

With the advent of farming, multi-tasking was also vital. Farmers had to grow the food, harvest it, protect it from wildlife, tend to the cattle, and lead their families. Distractions were abundant. When people started to live in cities, multi-tasking was increased to an ever higher levels, similar to what they are today.

Smith argues that multi-tasking has made ordinary people capable of laying the groundwork for great civilizations. So next time you are checking your email, talking on the phone, and cooking dinner all at once, do not feel bad. Multi-tasking has been around for millions of years, and it is here to stay. Just remember, even a caveman can do it.

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