Multitasking Is Not Possible According to Neuroscience. Attention: Part 3

Tell me if this has ever happened to you.  You treat yourself to a dinner with a friend, who you haven’t seen in a while.  The dim lighting adds a charming ambiance, the bread basket is choc-full of warm dinner rolls, and your conversation is riveting… until your friend pulls out their cell phone.  He or she begins reading missed texts they have been getting since the beginning of dinner, and the conversation comes to a slow and bumpy halt.  In an attempt to keep the conversation going you ask another question, your friend doesn’t answer because they are too preoccupied with their phone.  You continue talking to keep the conversation rolling as before.   Meanwhile, you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not sure if he or she is paying attention to me…” I’ll answer that for you. No. No they’re not paying attention to you.

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THEN, your friend asks, “wait, what did you say? Sorry, ‘blah-blah-blah’ texted me.” Does this annoy you as much as it annoys me?

WE ARE TERRIBLE AT MULTITASKING. Here’s Why:

Humans are not biologically wired to pay attention to more than one brain-consuming stimulus at once, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules.  People will disagree with the previous statement and wonder, what about being able to walk and talk at the same time? Or being able to chew gum while reading? Technically speaking, yes, the brain is multitasking in these instances, however, the brain is not being challenged to pay attention to more than one attention demanding stimulus.  You don’t pay attention to putting one foot in front of the other when you’re walking.  You also don’t may attention to opening and closing your jaw when chewing gum.  So when I say the brain cannot multitask when it comes to paying attention, that is true, similar to the ‘cell phone at dinner example’ above.

Why?

The brain processes things you need to pay attention to in a sequential order, according to Medina.  Let me explain this with another example.  You are reading over an analysis from a customer on a task completed by your company.  This is a long and dry analysis so you turn on music to keep yourself from getting bored.  While you are reading this analysis you are getting texts from co-worker concerning a different job.

Task 1: Your prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area in charge of decision-making, problem solving, and planning, lights up when your eyes shift to your computer screen.  The PFC alerts the rest of your brain that you need to begin comprehending the customer analysis.

Task 2: With the attention alert from the PFC, the brain searches for the necessary path of brain cells to complete reading and comprehension of the customer analysis.

Task 3: The necessary brain cells needed to complete the comprehension of the customer analysis are turned ON.

Task 4: PFC activity spikes again when your cell phone vibrates.  Your coworker has just texted you about more information on a different campaign for your company.

Task 5: The PFC sends out a search for a different set of brain cells to respond to the text because the way you respond to a text from your coworker may be different than the way you respond to your customer’s analysis.

Task 6: The brain cells necessary for responding to the text are turned on.

Task 7: Your attention shifts back to your customer’s analysis and the process repeats this same cycle in the same sequence over and over again.  Not to mention you have music playing in the background.

It is impossible for your brain to process information as efficiently as it would without the extra text message and music stimuli. These other stimuli are simply distractions and obstacles your brain must eliminate before processing the correct information.  According to Medina, this is why people find themselves losing track of the work they just completed.  Medina says, studies show that a person who is interrupted of their task of priority takes 50% longer to complete the task.  Think about the number of errors that occur when this happens? It’s about the same at 50% more errors.  Ever wonder why it’s illegal to text while driving?

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Most people who have a steady job do not have the time, patience, or money to make 50% more errors on a task that takes double the time to complete.

A word of advice: When you are trying to complete a task that demands your attention, be sure to give it all of your attention.  Put your phone on silent and a place it outside of your field of view.  Also consider turning off your music or picking a genre that is composed of simple melodies without lyrics.  The task will be completed faster and with less errors.  Who doesn’t want that?

Be a better employee.  As Paolo Cardini would say, forget MULTItasking, try MONOtasking.

Please don’t hesitate to disagree with me.  Prove me wrong and tell me your story of someone you know who is a super multitasker! Follow my blog for my insights on neuroscience to improve yourself as an employee!

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10 thoughts on “Multitasking Is Not Possible According to Neuroscience. Attention: Part 3

  1. This should be made known to a lot of professors here, who have too many projections and notes up on board and are also talking at the same time. It should also be made known to sports coaches, who try to tell you how to fix your technique while you’re in the middle of a hard workout, aka a 2k. Said coach might also use a megaphone that doesn’t work.

    • While you may not be able to change your professors’ minds Libby, definitely check into the lectures professors post online to refer back to. Rather than scribbling down notes during class, forget the chicken scratch and just listen. Refer back to the online lectures you may have printed out before hand.

      As for the coaches, that’s where video comes in.

  2. Hey Lauren,
    This is very interesting and I am rather impressed!! I do have a few questions/statements. I work as an RN in the ICU. Nurses are constantly multitasking. Let me give you some idea of what a nurse has to keep track of. (Please excuse the run-on). Assessing the patient, keeping track of patient’s medications, remembering med times, making sure there are no med interactions, monitoring IV fluids (often 6 drips at a time), monitoring heart rhythm, monitoring vital signs, monitoring ventilator settings, listening for any alarms coming from the patient’s room (IV pumps, vent disconnect, heart rate, heart rhythm, etc.). Then go to patient two. While assessing, checking meds, turning, bathing, checking equipment,etc. for patient 2, still “listening” for any alarms from patient 1. Now this is only if everything goes as planned. Quite often, this is not the case. While taking care of all of this, I having a running list in my head of what I’m going to do next. This list is constantly changing and the order of priorities changes by the minute. So the majority of all nurses are constantly multitasking. But maybe, this really isn’t multitasking? Could it just be that it may seem like it, but it is just incredibly fast-paced? I’m not trying to contradict anything you have said. I am just interested in starting a discussion because I am truly interested in your thoughts.

    • Absolutely open to discussion! I encourage it and would rather my audience asks questions, which is the purpose of my blog. Very valid points as many of these tasks involve heavy activity on the Prefrontal Cortex. For the sake of the priorities nurses juggle on a daily basis, this is general practice for the job description of an RN. Correct me if I’m wrong, but back when you first started working I assume that the pace a nurse must keep up with was slightly more overwhelming than it is now having a few more years of experience under your belt. In fast paced and on your feet careers, like nursing, you train your prefrontal cortex to have a running list of tasks you need to complete in order to make patient care as comfortable and efficient as possible, ALL WHILE aiding the doctors. What helps is that many of these tasks are related to the general theme of just that, keeping the patient comfortable while being efficient. With more experience, this becomes regular routine. Activity in your prefrontal cortex spikes when you are introduced to new challenges, however this is a form of learning, as the prefrontal cortex is directly connected to your ‘memory-forming epicenter’ of the brain. Through your experience you learn to adapt to changing paces based on the influx of patients to the ICU. Because the natural tendency of the brain is to predict and plan for future challenges, the next time you are faced with a faster pace morning, you use this new and encoded skill set to reach the end goal, an ICU running smoothly.

      So to answer your question in a technical sense, in your profession you are required to maintain many tasks as equally important priorities. Instead of multitasking, all those who face similar routines to you on a daily basis have INCREDIBLE working memories, which allow you to pay attention to several inputs ONE AT A TIME (as opposed to all at once) and switch tasks fairly quickly. This is awesome exercise for your brain, and your noodle will thank you many years down the road.

      Does this answer your question?

  3. Yes it does!! As I was reading your response, I was saying out loud “Ohhhh! Cool!! That totally makes sense!!” You really brought it home when you mentioned focusing on several inputs one at a time, and rapidly switching between. So all this education I’m putting myself through really isn’t turning my brain to mush? There are some days that I wonder…..;).

    • Hahah exactly! I’m glad I could answer your question. Thank you for asking a thoughtful question as well. I want to encourage question asking AND discussion on my blog so keep ’em coming.

  4. Very interesting Lauren. What I took from that is that over time you train you brain on to focus on the many tasks at hand. Various professions require this ability to be successful, and the individual at the top are those who can process all this quickest.

    I understand that all those task have equal priority, but does that mean it is possible for any individual to basically “train” their brain to multitask at the menial everyday activities, such as being able to text and drive, or write emails during a meeting?

    • Good question Dan! That’s hard to say whether you can or not, however, from what research I have done on the topic I would guess no and here’s why.

      If you refer back to both Shelly’s question above and an earlier post I wrote, Attention: Part 2, you’ll remember that the brain processes tasks in sequential order. Rather than drawing from the details of a given event, the brain focuses on the gist of tasks and makes associations between those GENERAL big ideas. As opposed to the similar tasks an RN completes in his or her daily routine, driving and texting require VERY different attention and thus VERY different paths of neurons to complete the task, thus making it difficult for the brain to fill the gaps between the two tasks and make associations. This fact alone requires attention to ONE activity at a TIME, and a lot of it. As I mentioned in my post, individuals are 50% more likely to make errors while trying to multitask.

      Driving involves much more motor skill and the decision-making part of the brain’s response to environment, where as texting requires the thinking brain to create an appropriate response to the text and processing speech.

      I’d like to research this question more and get back to you with a more thorough answer, however, for now I suggest if you insist on trying to train yourself to multitask, stick with writing your emails during a meeting rather than texting and driving 😉

  5. I agree that it is neither easy not really effective to multitask.

    I for one have great difficulties concentrating on two tasks at once and find it considerably easier to do one thing at the time. It is not a matter quantity of tasks – at the end of the day I will have done the same amount of tasks regardless of how I do them, particularly in a work environment.

    For me it boils down to a simple choice: 2 or more half-done, semi-proper taks or one task done to the best of your capabilites.

    Alfredo

  6. I have always chided myself for not being a multitasking kind of person. I was relieved to find out that multitasking really is a myth and concentrating on a specific task is much more rewarding. Thanks, this article is an eye opener.

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