So You Think You Can Multitask?


Being wired to technology isn’t necessarily good for our neural wiring. Multitasking — which many people think they do well — is not healthy for neural efficiency. With each task switch, there is a cost, which makes our brains less efficient, and depletes nutrients more readily than if we concentrated on one task at a time.

Further, what most people consider “multitasking” — responding to an email while speaking on the phone, while jotting down notes, while reading an article … is actually a series of task switches they do. Human brains are not wired to multitask well — we are wired to perform one main task at a time. When we override this and try to do several things at once, or try to juggle between multiple tasks, we end up drained, less productive, and increase our cortisol levels, which is known to damage neurons.

Dr. Earl Miller, head of the Miller Lab at MIT, is an expert on divided attention and multitasking. He says that our brains are just “not wired to multitask well … When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

This cognitive cost — called a “switch cost” in cognitive literature — results in slower performance and decreased accuracy. The switch cost continues even when people are aware beforehand a switch is coming. This indicates that there are many executive control processes at play, including attention shifting, goal setting, retrieval, and inhibition of prior tasks. This is not sustainable by the human brain.

Consider allowing yourself to complete just one task at a time. Respond only to an email, then make that phone call. Allot yourself time limits if that helps you with efficiency. Trying to do otherwise — juggling between multiple tasks simultaneously — will make you less productive and more depleted.

Ever have a few minutes of “downtime”? Maybe you’re sitting at the doctor’s office waiting to be called in, or standing in the Starbucks line waiting for your drink to be made. Notice how people quickly snap out their phones and scroll? Or maybe you don’t because you are doing the same thing.

This constant bombardment of stimulation is unhealthy for your brain. The human brain needs moments of silence — moments of downtime — to function well. Giving your brain a break — from information, articles, social media feeds, music, emails, and everything else — means giving your brain a chance to replenish itself.

These moments of silence can foster creativity, reduce stress levels, and enhance overall brain function. You may think you are doing yourself a favor reading the latest news articles, or scrolling through photos of how a rocket is put together, but in reality, you are overstimulating your brain.

Technology has a great capacity to help us. From providing us information to solve problems, acting as a creative outlet, giving us the freedom to explore new concepts, technology has opened up worlds to us. However, these freedoms and abilities come with a cost. As in anything, moderation is key. Allow yourself some time to “unplug” every day. If not every day, then choose one day a week to unplug for a few hours, if not the whole day. Keep a notebook on how you feel. Are you less stressed? More thoughtful? Perhaps more creative?

I’d bet after a few of these unplugs, you’ll find yourself enjoying your own company, and the company of others, more — and you’ll be far more creative and content in your daily life.

You may even begin craving these moments of unwiring.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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