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Q&A From I-Brain Conference Part II: The Implications of Multi-Tasking

It wasn’t that long ago when the ability to multi-task was considered a valued and even necessary skill in the workplace.  Perhaps multi-tasking meant something else in those days, the ability to manage several projects at once, take on several roles, effectively or to demonstrate flexibility.   Nowadays, multi-tasking has morphed into a massive task shifting endeavor that is both tiring and inefficient for the brain.  Ten years ago, no one could have envisioned the incredible growth of  cell phones, internet usage, social networking ; it has been exponential with no end in site.   This growth has set the stage for creating tired, inefficient brains.

Our brains were designed to do one thing at a time particularly when the task involves attention rich inputs.  Certainly we can walk and chew gum at the same time.  However, automatic tasks such as walking and chewing gum use different brain structures than those used in deliberate task completion.  Automatic tasks draw on the basal ganglia whereas focused task completion relies heavily on the prefrontal cortex.   We can’t  effectively write a term paper and respond to e-mails and Facebook messages at the same time.  That involves task shifting and it taxes the brain mightily.

There are short-term consequences from multi-tasking as well as long-term effects on the brain.  Studies show that when a person is interrupted, it takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and the there are 50% more errors.  Here’s why:

1. To begin a task, blood rushes to the prefrontal cortex alerting the brain that it is about to shift attention to the particular task.

2.Then the brain must search for the neurons to complete the task and then rouse the neurons to engage in the task.

3. If the task is interrupted, the brain must now disengage from the task and re-engage in a different task.

4. The brain has to search for different neurons to complete the task and rouse them to engage in the other task.

This sequence of events takes place every time someone has to switch tasks.  In the old days, interrupting an individual’s train of thought was considered to be an intrusion and it was done in only the rarest of circumstances. These days, we do it to ourselves all day long!

There are also long-term consequences to chronic multi-tasking.   Chronic multi-taskers have difficulty with effective task switching, have decreased memory capacity and there is evidence even emotional intelligence suffers because the multi-tasker cannot engage with someone long enough to read social cues.  Multi-taskers also tend to write rambling documents with longer sentences-a byproduct of the struggle to regain a train of thought after being chronically interrupted.

The evidence continues to mount that multi-tasking, today’s multi-tasking that involves trying to complete tasks while constantly trying to manage emails, social networks, and cell phone use, has both short and long-term implications for the brain.  We have inherited a brain from our ancestors that can only focus on one task at a time and we subject it to a dizzying array of stimuli it wasn’t meant to handle simultaneously.  Yes, neuroplasticity suggests that the brain can adapt to certain environmental challenges but this capacity is not unlimited, particularly in the realms of attention and focus.  In fact, it is exactly adequate attention and focus that allows us take advantage of the adaptability of the brain to create change.

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