Can You Really Multitask?

jugglingThis blog is a bit off my normal beat, but I’ve read several articles lately about the effects of technology on our brains. I think the findings of these studies are things that you will find interesting.

I think most people will agree that we are busier today than we have ever been before. Not only do we lead hectic lives, but we have compounded our lives with connections through our smartphones and computers to coworkers, family and friends all throughout the day and night.

I meet people all of the time who say that they are good multitaskers and who say they that they are good at handling the new clutter in our modern personal and  work lives. There are days when I feel I am good at it and days when I definitely am not.

Researchers at MIT say that multitasking is an illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist there says that our brains are not wired to multitask. What you think of as multitasking is really the brain doing only one thing at a time and switching quickly between tasks. He says there is a price to pay for doing this because what we call multitasking leads to the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as adrenaline. Multitasking creates a dopamine feedback loop which rewards the brain for losing focus and searching for the next stimulation. The bottom line is that multitasking leads to less focus and makes us less efficient.

Miller says that multitasking is a diabolical illusion that makes us feel like we are getting things done, when instead we are just keeping the brain busy. When we multitask we don’t do any of the tasks as well as if we stopped and concentrated on them one at a time. And it’s addictive. Those of us old enough can remember back to a simpler time when we often made choices not to do things. If we were reading a book or watching a TV show we chose not to let ourselves get easily distracted. But since multitasking rewards the brain for getting distracted, we now routinely will break into everything we are doing to read an email, look to see who texted, see who commented on something we said on Facebook or Twitter.

I decided to test myself and I decided to watch a one-hour show on Netflix to see if I could watch it end-to-end without distraction. I was amazed at how poorly I did. Every few minutes I found myself wanting to go do something else. And a few times I almost automatically clicked on a different application on the computer. And I wanted to stop a lot more than I did and it was a real effort to stay focused on the show I was watching. I thought this would be easy, but apparently I am now addicted to multitasking. I wonder how many of you can do better?

One of the reasons we have gotten pulled into multitasking is a new expectation that we are always available. It used to be easy to drop out of sight by simply walking out of range of the telephone. People were not surprised to miss you when they called and leaving voice messages was a big deal. But today the expectation is that we have our smart phone with us and turned on at all times, and through that we can be called, texted, emailed and reached on demand.

Research shows that multitasking kills our concentration and is more detrimental to our short-term memory than smoking marijuana. Cannabinol, a chief ingredient of pot interferes directly with memory brain receptors and directly interferes with our ability to concentrate on several things at one. But research have shown that if you break off concentrating on a task to answer an email that your IQ temporarily drops ten points. And cumulative multitasking degrades your brain’s performance more than smoking pot.

Researchers at Stanford have shown that if you learn something new while multitasking that the information goes to the wrong part of the brain. For instance, if you read work emails while doing something else like watching TV that the information from the emails goes to the striatum, the place where we normally store skills and physical memories and not where we store ideas and data memory. If not interrupted, the same emails would be stored in the hippocampus, which is essentially our brain’s hard drive that is good at retrieving data when we need it.

Multitasking comes at a big cost. Asking the brain to constantly shift tasks burns up a lot of glucose in the brain which we need to stay focused. So multitasking can lead to feeling tired and disoriented after even a short time. I used to believe that deep thinking caused your brain to get tired, but staying on one task actually uses far less energy that constantly shifting from one task to another.

This makes me worry about what we are doing to our children who now multitask at an early age. Perhaps there is some hope since one of the new trends among many teenagers is a rebellion against technology, and that is probably a healthy thing. If the pressure to be always connected is hard on adults, one can only imagine the peer pressure it creates among teens. People of my age use email as our primary method of communication while teens almost exclusively use text. The biggest problem with texting, according to the researchers is that it demands hyper-immediacy and you are expected to return a response as soon as you get a text.

I have started my own little rebellion against multitasking. I am not checking emails more than a few times a day and I rarely check to see if somebody has texted me. After all, I need to save some time for Twitter!

One thought on “Can You Really Multitask?

  1. Dear Doug:
    Just like on the poster that says “‘Vegetarian’ is just another word for ‘Bad Hunter’,” so too, “‘Multi-tasker’ is just another word for ‘Bad Driver’.”
    Did I ever tell you about the lady many years ago, that was driving behind me on I-270 at 55 MPH, all while applying her make-up and lipstick in the rear view mirror. The “accident” here is not ‘if’… but ‘when’…

    Ron Isaacson
    Germantown MD

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