With so many things to take care on a single day multitasking has become an essential survival skill for most of us. And the more we practice the better we do it. Too bad this is not true.
Multiple studies confirm that the human brain is not wired to multitask; at least not when one task requires undivided attention, like learning. When you’re trying to learn something new the brain must be free of distractions if you want to obtain a good return-on-investment on your study time.
In the following NPR’s interview, profesor Daniel Weissman, from the University of Michigan, explains why humans can only focus on one thing at a time.
And not only multitasking is detrimental in multiple situations; under certain circumstances it could be extremely dangerous:
We want to believe that we can multitask efficiently, but research says otherwise. Here is a compilation of articles on this matter:
Multi-Tasking Adversely Affects Brain’s Learning
“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn”, said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology. “Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems. [Science Daily]
Three Multitasking Myths
A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology documents that people who multitask are less efficient than people who focus on one task at a time. The stop-and-go process means the brain has to remember where we stopped, what we already had done, and what needs to be done next. Brains are less efficient than mircoprocessors when it comes to storing information. And the more complex the task, the more time it takes the brain to reorient. [The Teaching Professor]
This Is Your Brain On Multitasking
Today’s teens are experienced multitaskers; they can be found texting their friends while playing a game online, with music and TV blaring in the background, all while trying to knock off their calculus homework. But their performance at each individual task may be suffering, say brain researchers. [The Wall Street Journal]
Multitasking drains brain
Scientists have bad news for people who think they can deftly drive a car while gabbing on a cell phone. The first study using magnetic resonance images of brain activity to compare what happens in people’s heads when they do one complex task, as opposed to two tasks at a time, reveals a disquieting fact: The brain appears to have a finite amount of space for tasks requiring attention. When people try to drive in heavy traffic and talk, researchers say, brain activity does not double. It decreases. People performing two demanding tasks simultaneously do neither one as well as they do each one alone. [San Diego Tribune]
Multitasking Takes Toll on Memory, Study Finds
A growing body of research shows that juggling many tasks, as so many people do in this technological era, can divide attention and hurt learning and performance. Does it also hinder short-term memory?
That’s the implication of a study being published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a respected journal. The research shows that multitasking takes a significantly greater toll on the working memory of older people. [The New York Times]
New studies suggest that with proper motivation the brain can focus on two challenging tasks simultaneously. However, performance and execution are still compromised when multitasking:
Motivated Multitasking: How the Brain Keeps Tabs on Two Tasks at Once
The human brain is considered to be pretty quick, but it lacks many of qualities of a super-efficient computer. For instance, we have trouble switching between tasks and cannot seem to actually do more than one thing at a time. So despite the increasing options—and demands—to multitask, our brains seem to have trouble keeping tabs on many activities at once.
A new study, however, illustrates how the brain can simultaneously keep track of two separate goals, even while it is busy performing a task related to one of the aims, hinting that the mind might be better at multitasking than previously thought. [Scientific American]
Multitasking Splits the Brain
When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task, new research shows. But forget about adding another mentally taxing task: The work also reveals that the brain can’t effectively handle more than two complex, related activities at once.
When it comes to task management, the prefrontal cortex is key. The anterior part of this brain region forms the goal or intention—for example, “I want that cookie”—and the posterior prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of the brain so that your hand reaches toward the cookie jar and your mind knows whether you have the cookie. So what happens when another goal enters the mix? [Science]