The Myth of Multitasking

The discovery in 2007 of a ‘bottleneck in the brain’ finally confirmed what many men had suspected for a long time, namely that no one — not even a woman — can do two things at once! The myth of multitasking was laid to rest.

Writing in the New Scientist, in April 2007, Alison Metlock reported David Strayer’s finding that talk/drive should become the new drink/drive, for all drivers, male and female. The problems caused by talking and driving include an impaired reaction time, and hands-free sets for phones do not improve this.

In one of his experiments Strayer and colleagues observed fifty-six thousand drivers approaching an intersection. They found that those on their cell phones were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop signs. In 2010, the National Safety Council in the USA estimated that 28 percent of all deaths and accidents on highways were the result of drivers on their phones. “Our brain can’t handle the overload,” Strayer said. “It’s just not made that way.”

In another experiment researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London asked two sets of subjects to take IQ tests. One group had to check e-mails and respond to instant messages while taking the test. The second group just sat down and did the test without distractions.

The distracted scored 10 points lower than the control group. In similar testing conditions, people intoxicated by marijuana scored 8 points lower. So researchers drew attention to their study by noting that “multitasking” is worse for your ability to concentrate than getting stoned.

The problem, state Horne and Wootton in their book Training Your Brain, is that doing even just two tasks, both very simple, involves negotiating three bottlenecks in your brain:

  • Deciding to what to give your attention. This is called the ‘Attention Blink’.
  • Holding two sets of information in a short-term memory that is already limited. This is called the ‘Cognitive Limit’.
  • Selecting a response to each situation and then deciding which selection to implement first causes a further delay. This is called the ‘Selection Blink’.

Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from one action (for example, driving) to the next (for example talking to someone), there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.

That start/stop/start process is rough on us: rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.

Don’t believe this?

Writing for Psychology Today, Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., recommends you take this test:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
  • On the first line, write:
    • I am a great multitasker
  • On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
    • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask.

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

I a…..

1 2…..

We bet you your time is double or more what it was on the first round.

That’s switch-tasking on something very simple, but that’s exactly what happens when we attempt to do many things (often more complex) at the same time.

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