Can the Brain Multitask Effectively?

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryAn interesting article from The New York Times raises the question of the brain’s ability to multitask. Given the pervasiveness of technology and the increasing need to juggle phone calls, emails, instant messages, and computer work, the article suggests that while we feel like we are being more efficient by multitasking, the reality is that our brain cannot effectively adapt to these interruptions.

Based on some research out of Vanderbilt, researchers concluded that the brain simply cannot process two things at once. Study participants showed delayed in reactions when receiving two tasks at nearly the same time. Additionally, researchers at Oxford debunk the myth that younger individuals can multitask more effectively. Workers studied at Microsoft showed delays of up to 15 minutes to return to their tasks after responding to incoming email and instant messages. The conclusion from this work is that multitasking reduces productivity and revenue generation.

The implication is clear – while we feel we are being more efficient by multitasking with all of our gadgets and electronic communications, we probably aren’t. Although I’m not ready to give up my blackberry or my text pager, this definitely makes me reconsider how often I will be checking my messages.

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  • Oh my.

    Of course the brain can multi-task.
    Of course it can do two things at once.

    In every moment, your brain is processing billions of “bits” of information about your internal status, your environment, what your conscious attention is currently on. How many times have you experienced having a word or name you couldn’t remember pop into your mind minutes or even hours later? How often do you decide to let something “cook” in the back of your mind while you go on to other things?

    What these studies refer to is our ability to *consciously* be aware of multiple things. And our consciousness is indeed much more limited in its capacity, as demonstrated in these studies.

    It is critical in discussing the capacity of the brain to make distinctions between our conscious, deliberate processing (what Guy Claxton calls the “Hare Brain”) and the unconscious processing that goes on behind the scenes (what Claxton calls the “Tortoise Mind”).



Dr. JC is a medical doctor who has a passion for health promotion and education.

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