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Multitasking and Brain Health

Sandhya Basu





Take a moment and observe all the things you are doing right now. You could be reading this article with your phone in hand, scrolling through social media or awaiting work emails or calls. You may also be listening to music or watching TV while reading this article—all at once!

Basically, you are engaging in multiple things at the same time, also known as multitasking. If you introspect closely, are you really multitasking or just very quickly shifting your attention from one activity to the other?!

While it may look like we are capable of accomplishing many tasks at once, research shows that our brains don’t agree with us. So much so that our brain’s productivity may reduce to as much as 40% due to multitasking! The breaking news is that our brains help us in ‘serial-tasking’, rather than ‘multitasking’.

Some of us can be proud multitaskers. We may have seemed to perform various tasks successfully, at a given time. Whereas, on the other hand, we have research suggesting otherwise. Such a paradoxical situation can be eased by defining what we mean by multitasking. It may indicate-

  1. Carrying out two or more activities at the same time (reading a book while listening to music);

  2. Switching back and forth from one activity to the other (having email conversations while completing a work assignment); or

  3. Carrying out many activities one after the other, in rapid succession (making a presentation, cooking dinner, reading through a work email--one after the other)

Given the different nature of multitasking, our brain gets affected due to an increased cognitive load. Though in the past, people believed multitasking to be equivalent to “accomplishing more”; recent research says a big NO to multitasking!

Findings from research in Stanford University found that multitasking decreases productivity as participants experienced trouble organizing their thoughts, filtering in relevant information, and became slower at task switching.

The neuroscience behind multitasking also suggests the same!

Our brains do not have the required cognitive architecture to perform two or more activities simultaneously. Neuroimaging studies show that frontoparietal control network, dorsal attention network, and ventral attention network are the brain networks that determine our multitasking skills.

The frontoparietal control and ventral attention networks are responsible for identifying a goal (example, to send an email), select suitable information (content of the email), and side-line irrelevant information (content for a presentation, irrelevant to the email). In this particular task, the frontoparietal control network guides the brain to allocate attention to the necessary information through dorsal and ventral attention network. The catch is that all these brain networks are limited in their capacities. So, when we multitask, these brain networks come under pressure because of the competing information waiting to get processed.

All this information may seem a bit strange because in our daily lives, we multitask activities that are simple and routine. We listen to music while walking or talk while watching TV. Our brain networks get compromised when we involve ourselves in complex tasks. Such a habit can negatively impact our brain health in the following ways:

  1. Permanent brain damage: Research from the University of Sussex shows that regular and high multitaskers have decreased brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex—a region responsible for empathy and emotional control.

  2. Reduces mental efficiency: Earl Miller, a neuroscientist from the MIT, believes that every time we shift from one task to another, our brain indulges in “cognitive cost”—a popular term indicating wasting brain’s resources. A study from the University of California reinforces Miller’s point by discovering that our brain takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds, on average, to refocus on an activity after a break.

  3. Reduced focus and concentration: Because of the limited capacities of our brain networks, we often tend to lose focus while multitasking. This happens because multitasking rewards the brain for losing focus through “dopamine rush”. In other words, the brain feels good when it’s distracted with multiple tasks at once so much so that it constantly searches for an external stimulation, eventually leading to loss of focus and concentration. Continuously scrolling through Facebook while working is a famous example of dopamine rush!

  4. Creates stress: Multitasking increases the brain’s ability to produce cortisol—the stress hormone. Stress affects our productivity, which in turn, causes mental fatigue and anxiety for not completing the designated task.

  5. Leads to burnout: Our brain needs oxygenated blood to stay on a task effectively. But when we multitask, the brain shifts attention from one activity to the other, causing the brain regions to consume oxygenated blood. Simply put, multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel at a rapid rate that leaves us feeling exhausted after a short duration.

Multitasking, especially when successful (mostly after a cup of strong coffee, yes, we know the trick!), feels good. But is it worth your brain health?

Managing brain health is important. One of the best ways to preserve your brain health is to take one task at a time. Take a break after 45 minutes and regain your energy. Work in an environment far from distractions with media devices out of sight. Such practices encourage good brain health and prevent premature cognitive aging.

There are also other ways of improving brain health. Brain gym exercises, meditation, lifestyle techniques, etc. are some of the broad exercises that are promoted by the Restart program of the Brighter Minds. If you are interested in improving and maintaining your brain health, then log on to: https://www.restart.brighterminds.org



References:

Madore, K. P., & Wagner, A. D. (2019). Multicosts of Multitasking. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science, 2019, cer-04-19.

Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis, (20), 105-110.

Spink, A., Cole, C., & Waller, M. (2008). Multitasking behavior. Annual review of information science and technology, 42(1), 93-118.

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