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How multitasking messes with your brain

By Tessa Ivascu | Section(s): GET... , , | Add Your comment

Don’t believe multitasking means doing several things at the same time, helping you to be more productive. It means constant switching and pivoting between tasks. It actually leads you to concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that you’re supposed to be concentrating on. When the stakes get higher, multitasking can stress you out.

I was a multitasking addict. For the last 12 years, I worked as editor in chief of several magazines. If you are not capable of multitasking, you cannot survive in this job more than 6 months. Or so I thought. I was not only capable of multitasking, I loved it. I added more and more tasks to the pile.
Edit an article a free-lance journalist had sent me by mail while talking on the phone with the advertising department about the next cover, while discussing changes in the magazine’s layout with the art director : what a ball ! People looked up to me : « What an extraordinary capacity you have, Tessa, to concentrate on so many different things at the same time ! »
After several years of multitasking orgy, my brain began to misfire. I had attention gaps, it took me more and more time to concentrate on the most important or the most urgent task awaiting me. In fact I knew no longer what was the most urgent task, my priorities were all messed up. Above all, everything I did bored me and each task became a drag.

The attempt to operate like computers. There's not much research on the addictive nature of multitasking. But there is plenty of research on the hidden costs of multitasking. Actually, every time you multitask, you're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly. You use your « mental CEO » : those « executive control » processes found to be associated with the brain's prefrontal cortex and other key neural regions such as the parietal cortex.
Researchers say that 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.
Rule activation itself takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second - which can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks.
As Walter Kirn puts it in his article, The Autumn of the Multitaskers, published in The Atlantic Magazine, multitasking is

the attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.
The brain deludes itself. But what happens to a computer when mutitasking ? In an 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. The same happens to the human brain. Dr. John J.Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explains : « The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Businesses and schools praise multitasking, but research clearly shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes. »
So, why do we still tend to believe multitasking is efficient ? « We frequently overestimate our ability to handle multiple tasks. « People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves », says neuroscientist Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT. And « the brain is very good at deluding itself. ».

Hits against your performance. You may think you can make a phone call while reading your e-mails, but actually « you cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks », Miller explains. « They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them. »
Even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain when we try to do several at once. For tasks that are at all complicated, 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.

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