Some people seem to pride themselves on their ability to multitask. It often comes off as impressive when someone can, for instance, study for a test while talking on the phone, watching television, eating dinner, listening to music, checking their e-mail, driving, playing a video game, changing their Facebook status, and formulating a new theory of relativity…okay, maybe I got a little carried away there.
But the point is, multitasking generally seems to be conceived as a good thing. On top of that, it seems like the more technologically advanced our culture becomes, the more we tend to multitask. After all, fifty years ago you never would have seen anyone driving while talking on their Bluetooth while playing a game on their iPhone while checking their e-mail, right?
But does it work?
The Truth About Multitasking
Being the cognitive science geeks that we are, we became curious about the phenomenon of multitasking, and whether it really is a positive thing. We did a little research, and guess what? You may want to stop doing the twelve other things you’re doing right now before you read this next sentence: the evidence on multitasking is overwhelmingly negative.
One article, written by Theresa Tamkins on CNNhealth.com, warns about the dangers of multitasking, particularly when using multiple forms of media. More specifically, Tamkins explains that multitaskers tend to be more easily distracted, often retaining irrelevant information in their short-term memory which makes it much more difficult to focus on the important things. She cites a study done at Stanford in which heavy multitaskers had significantly slower response times than non-multitaskers on a variety of attention tasks.
This delayed response may not matter much in a controlled lab experiment like this, but it becomes a little more consequential when you’re driving along and focusing more attention on your ex-girlfriend’s latest Tweets than the guy riding his bike in your blind spot.
While we’re on the topic of multitasking with technology, another series of articles that entitled “Your Brain on Computers” written by Matt Richtel for the New York Times, suggests that the internet actually encourages us to constantly multitask. These articles, which also cite the Stanford studies, explain that the dangers of multitasking actually extend beyond the state of multitasking itself; in other words, heavy multitaskers are at a disadvantage even when they aren’t multitasking.
Multitasking: Just Say No!
What does this evidence say about our brains?
One blog post (now private) discusses some of the research that is going on at Vanderbilt (my alma mater!) on the neural basis of multitasking, particularly in the left inferior frontal junction. This is an especially interesting area of research because our brains are so good at parallel processing – which is why we can successfully do such simple forms of “multitasking” like eating popcorn while watching a movie, and yet the research still suggests that we are pretty bad at forms of multitasking that require a little more attention.
A second post from our friend Dr. Bill, “Memory Medic” explains that when our brain tries to do two things at once, it really ignores one task while attempting to do the other. In a later post, Dr. Bill explains that multitasking impairs the formation of new memories and may even be damaging to the brain itself; a third post adds that multitasking also interferes with initial learning.
Thus, when you see people engaging in multiple activities at once, it may look super productive, but really it is anything but.
How can we avoid multitasking in a technology-obsessed world where so many things seem to constantly demand our attention?
One helpful blog post called “4 Simple Ways to Maintain Concentration” suggests such easy lifestyle changes as writing down what you’re working on and turning off your internet connection when you don’t need it. In general, we recommend setting aside a given period of time (e.g., two hours) to devote to one task (e.g., studying for an exam), and until that time is over, that’s all you should be doing. In between these sessions is when you can allow yourself to take a useful study break and do whatever other activities you want to do, but again, give yourself a time limit (e.g., 30 minutes). If you split up your tasks instead of attempting to do them all at once, you’ll find that this is a much more productive use of your time – and your brain will thank you for it.
One other tip we’ll recommend is using effective, fun study tools like Brainscape which allow you to start and stop on your own schedule, so you can quickly pack in some learning without having to maintain focus for hours at a time.
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