Multitasking: You can’t do it, my friends


It might seem like a strange thing to say, coming from a person who’s drinking coffee, answering office email, listening to Juliana Hatfield’s great new album How to Walk Away which I really recommend, and blogging, but multitasking is just about impossible, according to MRI experiments.

…[A] man lying inside the scanner would be performing different tasks, depending on the color of two numbers he sees on a screen. … [W[hen the man in the scanner sees green, his brain has to pause before responding — to round up all the information it has about the green task. When the man sees red, his brain pauses again — to push aside information about the green task and replace it with information about the red task. If the tasks were simpler, they might not require this sort of full-throttle switching. But, [U. Michigan neuroscientist Daniel] Weissman said, even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain when we try to do several at once.

Modern life expects us to do more and more things more quickly, if not simultaneously. If that’s not even possible, at what point do we reorder our tasks and expectations? How will your Bartleby-like character cope?

[Charles Babbage’s brain by Gaetan Lee]

2 thoughts on “Multitasking: You can’t do it, my friends”

  1. Another study confirming info already known. Notice this was a study of men — one with women may have very different findings. Studies of male vs. women drivers who also performed another “task” (even something most take for granted as possible, “conversing with passengers”, not the apparently much harder and needing legislation against “conversing with someone on the phone”) showed slight to significant degradation amongst male drivers (female drivers were able to multitask much more effectively). No doubt it is due to growth differences that take place due to hormones – male brains tend to be better at focusing on a single task, while female brains are able to handle more tasks at once (although not at the same depth). From an evolutionary standpoint, concentrating while hunting vs cooking, gathering and keeping track of the kids/toddlers all while watching out for marauding lions and bears required different structuring of attention and multitasking. Although true that experiences from infancy until adulthood will also change brain structure and the connections that are most used, there will always be some differences in structure that are “more male” vs “more female”.

  2. FWIW: I think a study comparing how men and women (supposedly) multitask would be interesting. Throw in some non-U.S. cultures for added interest.

    Sometimes studies do confirm, or seem to confirm, what we already know. Or think we do. I think they’re worth doing anyway.

    If (random example) U.S. legislatures have to consider bills to outlaw texting while driving, then some people clearly aren’t getting the message.

    Though in a case like that, my guess would be that driver/texters would concede that they are exceptions, and obviously other people shouldn’t be doing it.

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