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Multitasking: Scientists Say It Hurts Our Brains

Posted on January 30, 2008

Reading Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

People have always given me a bit of a hard time for not being a great multitasker. In fact, my girlfriend makes fun of me here and there for not being able to carry on a conversation and read a book at the same time or about how I really zone into my work or my writing and don’t realize that she’s talking to me. (To be fair, she is super supportive and the multitasking thing is just one of the very few things she teases me about. I mean, I am honestly not sure how she puts up with me. She’s a saint.)

I used to think multitasking was something that I needed to work on but I always had this feeling that focusing on a task, one task, would result in a better end product and in me learning much more about what I was doing and how I could improve.

Well, it turns out that the scientists (Who are these people anyway? I just picture a huge lab full of guys in white lab coats with a bunch of “test subjects” sitting around with a bunch of machines and wires hooked to them. Too much sci-fi for me…) may have proven that my suspicion about multitasking not being very productive is actually a fact.

Thanks to my friend Jason I came across an article in the Atlantic that discusses the topic and has some very good insight into why multitasking is not good for us (and our brains).

Summary: our brain is, in fact, not a computer capable of doing many things at once (actually it can do many things at once but in the cases where the brain is in that mode it actually concentrates a lot on concentrating rather than the tasks it is trying to complete). It is, however, a highly advanced tool capable of solving large problems and focusing on one task at a time with complete clarity. Check out this excerpt from the Altantic article as I think it illustrates the point nicely.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

Ouch! That is not good at all. What’s that you say? Not a fan of science? OK, let’s take a look at the monetary cost of multitasking. Atlantic article, show us the money!

Six hundred and fifty billion dollars [Eric’s note: this is a per year figure.]. That’s what we might call our National Attention Deficit, according to Jonathan B. Spira, who’s the chief analyst at a business- research firm called Basex and has estimated the per annum cost to the economy of multitasking-induced disruptions. (He obtained the figure by surveying office workers across the country, who reported that some 28 percent of their time was wasted dealing with multitasking- related transitions and interruptions.)

Now do I have your attention? Right… you’re reading this while also trying to do yoga and e-mail people on your BlackBerry. My bad. I should have known.

With all that said I would like to note that you can in fact have a variety of activities and interests in your life and even different things to do at work (everyone that knows me well knows I do a lot of different things in and outside of work). The idea is not that you should only do one specific thing in life, the idea is that you should focus on one thing at a time.

Basically you just need to break up your day. While you are answering e-mail that is all you should be doing. While you are working on a big client proposal you shouldn’t be doing anything else (especially answering intermittent e-mails). While you are riding your bike you shouldn’t be listening to your iPod or reading e-mail on your BlackBerry (seems crazy but I have seen them both and in the latter case the guy was coming straight at me - don’t worry though, collision avoided due to my focus on the task at hand). While you are reading, just read. Don’t keep answering the e-mail that come in, don’t answer your phone (unless it may be an emergency), etc. You get the idea. It’s not about having one task or activity in life, it’s simply about focusing on one at a time.

Multitasking is really hurting the experience of life in the sense that the journey is lost in the rush to some end game. That’s truly unfortunate because the journey is what it’s all about. It’s where you learn things, grow as a person and really enjoy your life.

So, next time you are about to multitask remember that life’s all about the journey, oh, and that you don’t want to fry your brain early on in life. Frying your brain = bad.

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5 Comments so far
  1. Justin January 30, 2008 10:43 pm

    Amen, brutha.

  2. Danny Howard January 31, 2008 8:07 pm

    If multi-tasking is bad for people, perhaps you could adjust your web site so that the right half of the screen area isn’t taken up with distractions, and allow readers to focus on reading the content.


  3. Eric Olson January 31, 2008 8:37 pm

    @ Danny: I am sorry that you find the right of side of this site distracting. On the permalink pages I simply have a search box (so readers can find relevant content when they are ready to move on from the current article) and a box next to that which shows local tech jobs. I figured both of these would be useful to readers and most do appreciate them being there.

    That said, I would love to hear some suggestions on how I can clean the site up while still keeping some useful functionality on it.

  4. cliff Eclipse February 1, 2008 2:07 pm

    heheh. That may explain why last relationship with neuro-biologist multitasker ended in total lack of communication. And I thought I was just boring?

  5. […] happened time and time again on the web so why not start it again on this blog? I mean, I did just write about multitasking so it seems to fit in nicely with the flow […]