As are most of us these days, either by desire or necessity, I’m a huge multitasker. But I’ve been starting to wonder if multitasking is a mindful activity. If you’re doing several different things at once, are you really paying attention to any of them? In fact, can the mind ever perceive more than one thing at a time?
A computer can only perform one process at a time. It performs these processes extremely quickly so that the human mind is tricked into thinking that two or more events triggered microseconds apart actually occurred at the same time. According to Gilbert J. Rose’s Between Couch and Piano: Psychoanalysis, Music, Art and Neuroscience (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2004):
Sounds [occurring] less than 3/1000ths of a second apart are perceived as simultaneous. Between 3/1000ths of a second and 3/100ths of a second, one can hear that they are separate sounds but not which came first. When two sounds are about 3/100ths of a second apart, one can passively experience their sequence but not yet organize a response before the second sound arrives; 3/10ths of a second is enough time to initiate a response, but not yet sufficient to formulate a comparison between the two stimuli as discrete parcels of experience. To make a comparison, like recognizing a melody, takes about three seconds. This is the fundamental “parcel of experience.”
But reality might be even more unlike our perceptions than that. When we are perceiving these fake simultaneities or any other possible non-computer-generated simultaneities, are we actually hearing them simultaneously? Or are our neurons rushing back and forth between the various individual components of the simultaneity to create an aural illusion of one?
Psychologists would argue that we can only perceive one thing at a time which in fact is probably more in keeping with the way things actually are in reality. Contemporary physics posits that no singular event can occur at precisely the same time as any other.
So, what does all this have to do with contemporary music? Actually quite a bit considering that most contemporary music is based on the notion of simultaneous sonic occurrences: e.g. harmony, orchestration, etc. Many of the world’s musical traditions have never evolved past a monophonic presentation of music and perhaps such monophony is more in keeping with how we perceive. Or is it? Contrapositively, we know from acoustics that we perceive differences in individual timbres as a result of which partials in the simultaneous sounding of overtones in a sound wave are more pronounced. Therefore all the single tones in melodic lines performed on any instrument—including the voice—are in fact complex harmonies, the only exception to this natural phenomenon being overtone-less electronically generated sine tones. The use of sine tones, ironically, sounds extremely weird and artificial to most people. So clearly contradictory perceptual and physical processes are at play. Still, most listeners in any culture find it difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time. Sure, almost anyone can learn to perceive counterpoint but it is arguably not an innate skill for most people.
How does this relate to our culture of multitasking? Well, in fact, it proves that such a culture borders on the oxymoronic. If indeed we can only do one thing at a time, when we multitask we are rapidly shifting between activities rather than doing many at once. More often than not, however, that rapid shifting takes more time than the actual doing of any of these activities, and the end result is that we seem like we’re doing a ton of stuff but we’re actually accomplishing nothing.