Brain Rules: The brain cannot multitask

Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. Pianists can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention. It is the resource you forcibly deploy while trying to listen to a boring lecture at school. It is the activity that collapses as your brain wanders during a tedious presentation at work. This attentional ability is not capable of multitasking.

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To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

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Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors. Rogers RD & Monsell, S (1995)

Notes: These trials involved uninterrupted (single-focus) tasks and interrupted (multiple-focus) tasks. Data are shown for experiments involving number-based manipulations and letter-based manipulations.

Some people, particularly younger people, are more adept at task-switching. If a person is familiar with the tasks, the completion time and errors are much less than if the tasks are unfamiliar. Still, taking your sequential brain into a multitasking environment can be like trying to put your right foot into your left shoe.

via Brain Rules: The brain cannot multitask.