On the Mind: What We Know About Multitasking

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On the Mind: What We Know About Multitasking

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.

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With our personal, professional and social lives inundated with texts, emails and social media, we’re no strangers to multitasking. It seems inevitable in the ever-elusive struggle for work-life balance. But at some point, it gets annoying when a friend gets frustrated for not receiving a response to a text or a client calls you after not receiving a reply to an email sent 20 minutes ago.

Studies Say

Scientists focused on multitasking research in the past decade in particular, questioning how the Internet has reshaped our thoughts and behaviors. This shift toward shallow information processing, rapid attention shifting and increased multitasking is often linked with increased distractibility and poor self-control, researchers from France and the United Kingdom said last October. Although some of this concern may be exaggerated and not backed by evidence, they say, other studies point to a definite change in our brain networks related to multitasking.

Beyond what can benefit our to-do lists, researchers are also using multitasking research in the medical realm. How our brains handle tasks can potentially tell us how to understand and treat serious diseases that are currently life-hindering and debilitating. In fact, several medical studies from the past few months have investigated multitasking related to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke patients, and traumatic brain injury patients, especially active duty military members.

Key Takeaways

Let’s face it: Multitasking is here to stay in today’s wired world. As we learn more about what it does to our brains, however, we can understand how it rules our thoughts and actions.

1. Multitasking is hard.

Certain parts of the brain process tasks, and if we’re doing too much at once, that can bottleneck and divide our attention. Of course, different tasks are more complex than others, so we can sometimes effectively pull off simple tasks at the same time. Ultimately, researchers have concluded that efficient multitasking is connected to someone’s ability to perform well in certain environments, which makes common sense.

At the same time, some prompts can really get in the way. Several New York researchers reported that task-irrelevant sounds can distract us and affect our performance. Think of your phone buzzing, email dinging and inbox notifications interrupting your concentration during a project. The fun news is that it only gets tougher from here — as we age, our brains are less flexible with multitasking, even during walking. Have you ever watched your parents stop on the sidewalk to answer a text? I’ve always wondered why, and now it makes sense.

2. Our inherent traits affect our multitasking abilities.

It’s not fair, but not all of us are created equally as multitaskers. In the past few years, researchers have discovered a group of extraordinary multitaskers they call “supertaskers” who can more successfully juggle two attention-demanding tasks at once. Brain scans show that their brains use two parts of the brain more efficiently to keep track of what they’re doing. Scientists aren’t sure what this means for to-do lists or workplaces yet, but it may shed some insight into why you can zoom through a pile of papers and your co-worker can’t.

Related to that, our psychological personality could play a role, too. Neuroticism in particular, often linked to feelings of anxiety and guilt, can hamper multitasking abilities. Scientists in London published their findings in December, which used MRI scans to assess brain activity. High levels of neurotic behavior can impair performance, slow down response times and increase errors, they found.

3. Multitasking with media can hinder us.

The latest multitasking memes poke fun at people who read emails on their laptops, look at texts on their phones, and watch Netflix or Hulu on their TVs at the same time. It’s a joke, but it’s also a concern for researchers — extensive media multitasking for teens and young adults could be detrimental for attention, language and social skills that are still developing. In fact, it may be linked to lower standardized test scores in both math and English, poorer working memory and more impulsive behavior, MIT researchers said in December. Yikes.

If there’s one ray of hopeful light, it’s this: Action videogames don’t seem to fall into this category. In fact, focus on a particular game may increase attentional control, New York and Switzerland researchers have said. Overall, intermediate media multitaskers perform better than those on either the low or high end. Sounds like media moderation is key.

4. Cognitive training may help.

If an information-rich sensory world makes multitasking inevitable and necessary, why don’t we find a way to adapt? Brain training could change our brain activity and prevent cognitive decline in areas related to memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the brain training market is a rapidly-growing multibillion dollar industry being promoted by app and videogame companies. Elevate, Peak, Lumosity and Brainwell, for example, are current popular apps that promise to boost focus, memory and processing. Studies are still investigating whether the apps really provide long-term benefits, but they’re starting to find that training does affect certain brain regions.

5. Brain stimulation could also help with multitasking in the future.

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (abbreviated as tDCS) is all the rage right now in terms of next-level brain research and influence. Researchers are testing whether this non-invasive brain stimulation technique helps with traumatic brain injury, major depression and multitasking. In a study released in November, researchers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio tested whether tDCS helped military members better process information in high-stakes multitasking environments. Looks like it does. Who knows how long it’ll take to reach consumer-level approval, but it’s interesting to know what’s coming our way in the future and what our military operations may be able to do right now.

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Even though we know a great deal from brain scans, scientists still aren’t exactly sure how multitasking works in the brain all the time. In fact, it seems to vary by the type of task and who is doing it. Future studies will likely focus on the different parts of the brain that process tasks, such as the anterior cortex, and how to provoke more activity in those areas through app training, brain stimulation or old-fashioned single-task focusing.

Image: Ryan Ritchie, Flickr, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

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