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Is multitasking good or bad for our brain?

20th May 2016
Is multitasking good or bad for our brain

Putting a book back on the shelf on your way to the bathroom, where you put in a load of laundry while calling a friend to catch up on everything may not sound like multitasking, but reading an e-book on your tablet while listening to music and checking emails surely fits the modern multitasking definition.

We’re doing this every day without thinking it requires much decision power, and without wondering whether switching from one task to another affects our focus, memory or attention in the long run.

Is multitasking good or bad for us? Does it really help us save time, or on the contrary, it affects our productivity and makes us unable to perform at our best?

In most cases, multitasking means task switching

Although we may be tempted to think that doing more things at once increases productivity, research shows exactly the opposite: according to scientists from the Stanford University, multitasking decreases productivity and people who are constantly bombarded with messages from different sources or switching between tasks perform worse than those who focus on one task at a time.

The mentioned study found that people who switch from one job to another cannot pay attention or recall information efficiently, are easily distracted by irrelevant events or things, and perform poorly when it comes to storing and organizing new information. Professor Nass and his colleagues from the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab at Stanford found that multitaskers actually switch between tasks when they think they do multiple tasks at once, and this behavior makes them perform worse than people who handle one task at a time.

Multitaskers seem to have a hard time separating things in their minds and organizing information; they’re not able to filter out the irrelevant notions and focus on their goals, so their activity is slowed down. But these aren’t the only consequences of multitasking; it seems that this way of dealing with information overload affects one’s social life as well.

Nass and his team found that multitaskers tend to have more social problems than low-multitasking individuals, because they can’t focus at what other people say and can’t pay attention to their peers.

Multitaskers’ brains struggle and scientists can see it

MIT professor of neuroscience Earl Miller says that people are deluding themselves when they say they can multitask. “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not”, explains the scientist. When you’re trying to perform two tasks at once, the same parts of the brain have to be used, so the tasks compete for them and the result is interference.

If you try to answer the phone while writing an email, your brain struggles to perform only one of these tasks, because they both require the same brain areas. And the interesting part is that scientists can actually see the brain struggling, according to the MIT researcher.

Daniel Weissman, a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan, used MRI scanners to test the brains of subjects while they were taking on different tasks, and discovered that the brain has to pause before switching to another task. According to Weissman, simple tasks can overwhelm the brain when there’s too much information and we try to do too many things at once.

Although most of the available research indicates that multitasking is not beneficial for focus and attention, there are also some studies that suggest that switching from one task to another can have some positive effects, such as improving the ability to integrate information from multiple senses.

Chinese researchers Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong published a study that explored the differences between multitaskers’ tendency and ability to capture information from irrelevant sources. The researchers tested two groups, assessing how much the frequent multitaskers, respectively the light multitaskers, could integrate visual and auditory information automatically.

On average, participants received information from three media sources at once, and results showed that individuals who multitasked the most tended to be more efficient at multisensory integration than light multitaskers. Heavy multitaskers performed better in those tasks where an audio tone was present, but worse in those tasks without the audio tone.

To sum it up, the preponderance of studies indicate that we tend to perform better when we solve one task at a time, so if your productivity has decreased lately and you find yourself unable to focus or to come up with solutions, it may be a good idea to check your multitasking habits.

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