Physical Reasons Why Languages Fail – 3

Mutli-tasking vs Time-slicing

We like to think that we can do several things at once but we can’t. Instead we time-slice. When we’re younger we can do time-slice effortlessly, seamlessly, allowing us to believe that we are performing multiple tasks concurrently. But in fact, we’re not. Don’t believe me, try these simple experiments.


Do you see a rabbit (facing right) or a duck (facing left)? Can you see them both at the same time? (This image from J. Jastrow, from an article published in Popular Science in 1899, titled “The Mind’s Eye”.)




Do you see faces at the sides of the picture or a candlestick in the center of the picture? Here’s the important thing. Can you see them both at the same time?

These pictures are examples of bi-stable images, images that our consciousness can interpret in one of two ways but not in both ways at the same time. Our brains simply aren’t wired to be able to perceive both images simultaneously.

Not convinced? Numerous studies of people who attend meeting AND do emails at the same time do both activities poorly. Their contribution to the meeting is mediocre and their email responses are ambiguous and/or inaccurate and/or off-target and/or lacking in useful content. Go back and re-read some of your emails that you sent while you were in a meeting – are they really as good as they should have been, or just sufficient.

Still not convinced? The accident rate for people talking on cell phones while driving is approximately the same as for people who have had 1 drink. The accident rate for people who are texting and driving is tragically high; their minds are distracted for too long with their eyes off the road, resulting in too many accidents and fatalities.

Still not convinced? Read two books at the same time. I don’t mean read a chapter in one and then a chapter in the other, or a page in one and a page in the other, or even a paragraph or a sentence in one and then the other. Read both books simultaneously, word for word. Let me know how that works for you. I already know my limitations.

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