Researchers say that our brain’s executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages : goal shifting ("I want to do this now instead of that") and rule activation ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this"). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
No matter how good you have become at multitasking, you're still going to suffer hits against your performance. But there’s worse. Discover how multitasking adversely affects your ability to learn and absorb information, your ability to drive, and why it causes premature aging.
n Driver inattention
Driver inattention is involved in about 80 percent of crashes, according to a 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"If you test people while they're texting or talking on the phone, they will actually miss a lot of things that are in their visual periphery", says Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using a cell phone, because while the car is not totally under control, it can travel far enough to crash into obstacles the driver might have otherwise avoided.
"If you're driving while cell-phoning, then your performance is going to be as poor as if you were legally drunk", says David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.
n Not enough power left for learning
Multitasking causes a kind of brownout in the brain. David Meyer says all the lights go dim because there just isn't enough power to go around. So, the brain starts shutting things down — things like neural connections to important information. In a computer's operating system, each task consumes system storage and other resources. As more tasks are started, the system may slow down or begin to run out of shared storage.
To restore those connections, we will have to repeat much of the thought process that created them in the first place. The technical name for creating, or recreating, neural pathways is "spreading activation". It involves building connections step by step.
When we're interrupted, re-establishing those connections can take seconds or hours.
n Premature aging
Research studies show that doing more than one thing at a time is a major cause of premature aging. John Lorinc, in his article Driven to Distraction, writes that, "we must acknowledge the self-inflicted memory lapses triggered by information overload, chronic interruptions, and relentless electronic multi-tasking".
Multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us.
Here are some warning signs :
- short-term memory problems
- gaps in attentiveness
- reduced ability to concentrate
- reduced ability to focus and analyze
Fortunately, there are many methods and tips that can help you moderate multitasking, by learning how to switch between the right tasks at the right time. Remember :
To do two things at once is to do neither.
Publilius Syrus, Roman slave,
first century B.C.
Read more :
How Multitasking Puts You Behind Schedule