Multitasking Is a Myth, and to Attempt It Comes at a Neurobiological Cost



Multitasking is a myth, says McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin. Switching focus across tasks comes at a neurological cost, depleting chemicals we need to concentrate. Levitin’s latest book is “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” (http://goo.gl/hdavb8).

Read more at BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/daniel-levitin-on-multitasking-and-brain-evolution

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Transcript – It turns out that multitasking is a myth. We think that we’re doing a whole bunch of things at once. But we’re not actually because the brain doesn’t work that way. In a number of studies now have shown from Earl Miller’s lab at MIT and others that what we’re really doing is we’re paying attention to one thing for a little bit of time and then another and then another and then we come back around to the first. And all of these are separate projects that are occurring in separate parts of the brain, they require a separate start time, a separate monitoring process. And you end up fractionating your attention into little bits and pieces, not really engaging fully in any one thing. All that switching across tasks comes with a neurobiological cost. It depletes resources. So after an hour or two of attempting to multitask, if we find that we’re tired and we can’t focus, it’s because those very neural chemicals we needed to focus are now gone.
There are some jobs that require, not multitasking because we know it doesn’t exist but this kind of a rapid switching, I’m an air traffic controller, simultaneous translator at the UN, journalists, monitoring all these different things at once. And we can take a tip from the air traffic controllers who, as part of their duty cycle, are required after every hour and a half or two hours of work it’s mandated that they take a 15 to 30 minute break. And that means an unplugged disconnected break where they go for a walk or listen to music, they exercise, something to restore all of the burned up neurochemicals.

You might ask during this period of our evolution when there’s all this information is the brain adapting and changing? And yes it is. The brain adapts and changes all the time. Evolution is happening all the time. Unfortunately it’s rather sluggish. We talk about it in terms of evolutionary lag and generally speaking it takes about 20,000 years for the brain to catch up with the way the environment is in terms of how it’s encoded in the genome. So 20,000 years from now our brains may have evolved to deal with it. In the meantime we have to employee strategies, just a little bit more self-disciplined then we currently use to filter out unwanted or unnecessary input. I’m not talking about never letting something frivolous or fun in, but I’m talking about adopting a kind of a habit of allowing yourself to focus on one thing at a time for at least a few hours a day.

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26 thoughts on “Multitasking Is a Myth, and to Attempt It Comes at a Neurobiological Cost

  1. Those who multitask at work are not worth as much as those who focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking always ends up with a shoddy job being done. Fire all multitasking LGBTQ students who claim to be harassed for multitasking.

  2. All of these multitasking tests by "scientists" and "researchers" are the equivalent of bringing an average Joe to lift heavy weights, and upon failing to do so, they claim that it is impossible.

    Mental strength and Physical strength are both real things and generally both require a good amount of training to do efficiently, with the issue here being that training for multitasking is quite more complex as to say, lifting weights or doing pushups. Generally Physical training has been around for eons, but multitasking by all its relevancy when it comes to pushing yourself to the max is quite a new achievement and/or goal in human history, but stating that "multitasking is a myth" is beyond retarded, and I fear for anyone who takes this at face value.

  3. When did this 'we know that multitasking doesn't exist' begin? Why can't it? When I first heard the term, I recall it distinctly not coming with the promise of it being more productive than singletasking. It was as far as I knew, just a term to describe what we do every day as humans. Is it being dismissed merely because it doesn't live up to some new measure of productivity?

  4. First of all no one can tell me we don't multitask. Do you not breath and blink at the same time? Do you not do all the tasks required to run the machine we call bodies and yet also put together puzzles does anyone truly believe we do one of these things than another in turn? I also love when we quote studies without telling us the facts of the study who, what, when, where, why and how they conducted it and what the results were. So you may believe this if you want but I choose to call it hogwash.

  5. It is certainly true that multitasking reduces the maximum atteantion you can pay to a problem. But often multitasking helps me to stay focused on a problem, by multitasking e.g. listening to music sometimes word program at the same time , to keep my mind from wandering and fully spending the remainder of my attention on the task at hand. Only when a current problem is complex enough I switch everything else off for full attenation

  6. Musicians multi-task constantly. You can kibitz over its' definition, but it happens. Maybe the folks you tested weren't singing and playing drums at the same time. Or playing trumpet and tambourine while considering options for dinner after the gig… How am I doing those things in sequence and not simultaneously? Argue semantics of you want, but we as a culture refer to this act as multi-tasking. Why does this video exist?

  7. I've spent fifteen years (so far) as an Emergency Telecommunicator (AKA: Dispatcher), and this assessment is right on the money. I always tell people, "I don't multitask; I constantly update and adjust my priority list." I can also attest to the fact doing so makes this "cushy desk job" both mentally and physically exhausting. Nice to hear the biochemical science behind it.

  8. this title is misleading. multi tasking is not a myth. I'm a chef. I have multiple things going on at once all the time. I have things boiling while somethings roasting while I'm cleaning a piece of meat. I would say I'm doing multiple tasks at once. I could just put the rice on and watch it for 30 mins and say "sorry I cant multi-task, anyone who says they can is wrongs because its a myth". Now I understand what the video was saying that perhaps mental tasks like solving a mathematical formula we can only solve one at once. But calling multi-tasking a myth? You get a thumbs down BigThink

  9. I like that they left out more common jobs that have to deal with this. like a gas station attendant or a cook. I'm pretty sure they have to do more "multi-tasking" then a traffic controller or a journalist, and there are no mandatory 15 minute breaks for them, at least in my experience.

  10. I know multitasking is a myth and I have thought for a very long time that if we sit down and do 'several things at once', we'd look like an octopus doing them but since we don't we would do exactly like this 'several different things in rapid succession' however…
    I have always found a need for something playing in the background whilst I am doing something to study. And this includes audiobooks on the subject I am studying but then I need something relatively brainless (think games that require very little effort and more muscle memory) and vice versa if I am reading, studying or working (I require music at that point).
    One of my teachers said 'you focus better if you stop playing games and stop listening to music as it will only distract you', where as when I was talking to someone who work as a nurse (not a neuroscientist but still) who agreed that this is not uncommon or that strange as one is using 'passive' perception and the other is using 'active' perception. I am curious what scientific evidence there could be of such a thing as I think this is 'real' multitasking – not in the sense that one is doing several things at once but more fluidly going between several managable actions.
    Curious what people think about this.

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