Multitasking and the Brain

Multitasking and the Brain

by admin, August 19, 2019

Author: Dr. Praveen Pankajakshan

About two thousand years ago, a Latin writer said: To do two things at once is to do neither.

We have been hearing that multitasking is a good thing and the ability to handle multiple tasks at the same time is a positive trait. Many organizations have “multitasking skill” as one of the requirement in their basic qualifications. The Figure 1 is one such snapshot from LinkedIn posted by a multinational company that focuses on e-commerce.

Fig. 1. This is a snapshot from a LinkedIn job posting of a popular multinational company that focuses on e-commerce. The basic qualification asks for multitasking skillset.

But is it possible that Multitasking is overrated? Here are some supporting evidences from Science and from a practical experiment. You can be the judge!

Glenn Wilson conducted a study [2] for Hewlett-Packard and found that the participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced a lowering of IQ scores. The results showed that technological distractions diminished the IQ test performance scores by almost 10 points!

As a practical experiment, for this article, I tried to reproduce a simple multi-tasking exercise. You can also try this for yourself or on a volunteer family member, friend or colleague. What you need is a sheet of ruled paper (or lined paper), a pen and a watch or stop clock to measure your timings.

  1. As the first task, you will start the timer and write the following sentence in the first line of the paper: BRIGHTER MINDS IS COOL! Note that all are the letters are in capital letters, and there are three spaces and one exclamation sign. In the second line, you will write the numbers 1, 2, 3, … 23 one after another. Stop the timer and note down your timings
  2. For the second task, you will use the third and the fourth empty lines in the sheet of paper. You will start the timer and write the two lines of the first task together. It will be something like this: “B” in the third line, “1” in the fourth line; “R” in the third line, “2” in the fourth line; “I” in the third line, “3” in the fourth line; and so on until you reach “!” in the third line and “23” in the fourth line.

As a demonstration for this article, I tried it on myself and here is how I fared (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 A simple multitasking experiment to try. The writing of the first two lines are timed while writing sequentially one after the another, while the other two lines are timed while writing simultaneously as explained in the text.

Since I knew the results of this exercise, I was careful while writing and yet I made a few mistakes like in the alphabets “D”, “R” and in the number “2”. It took me 28 seconds on the first two lines and 44 seconds on the next two lines. When we tried this out on some randomly selected experimenters from an audience, here is a summary:

  1. Multitasking was stressful and they had to be extra careful in avoiding mistakes
  2. The quality of writing was affected in the third and the fourth line, and there were also more likely chances of mistakes
  3. The time taken to finish the multi-task was longer than the sequential single tasks. Sometimes it was almost a double!

It was earlier thought that multitasking affected the brain only for a shorter duration of time but recent evidence has pointed out that the effect might be longer than earlier anticipated. A 2009 study published in PNAS showed that media multi-taskers couldn’t ignore irrelevant things and had poor memory [1]. Neuroscientists Kep kee Loh and Ryota Kanai [3] revealed that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower grey-matter density in a specific region of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), compared to those who use just one device occasionally. The ACC is notably responsible for attention, motivation, and cognitive and emotional control functions. Multitasking negatively influences the retention of information over brief periods of time. The working memory (WM) is important for temporarily holding information for reasoning and guidance of decision making. This memory’s performance is negatively impacted by the presence of any external stimuli that is different than the focus of our memory goals [4, 5]. Older adults experience a more negative impact by distraction on WM performance compared with younger adults, and an even greater impairment when multitasking [6, 7]. This is because the impact of interference on the memory is often compounded with normal aging.

So, coming back to the words of the Latin writer, Publilius Syrus, who had so prophetically written about two thousand years ago: “Doing two things at once is to do neither!”. What has been your experience so far? Share with us at: contact@brighterminds.org

References

[1] E. Ophir, C. Nass, and A. D. Wagner, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers,” PNAS, 2009, 106(37).

[2] G. Wilson, “The Infomania Study,” 2010. url:

[3] Kep Kee Loh, Ryota Kanai, “Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex,” PLoS ONE 9(9), 2014.

[4] Sreenivasan KK, Jha AP (2007) Selective attention supports working memory maintenance by modulating perceptual processing of distractors. J Cogn Neurosci 19:32–41.

[5] Yoon JH, Curtis CE, D’Esposito M (2006) Differential effects of distraction during working memory on delay-period activity in the prefrontal cortex and the visual association cortex. Neuroimage 29:1117–1126.

[6] Clapp WC, Gazzaley A (2010) Distinct mechanisms for the impact of distraction and interruption on working memory in aging. Neurobiol Aging.

[7] Wesley C. Clapp, Michael T. Rubens, Jasdeep Sabharwal, and Adam Gazzaley, “Deficit in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults,” PNAS April 26, 2011 108 (17) 7212-7217

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