Think you’re a master of multi-tasking? Think again. Unless you’re one of the 3% of ‘super-taskers’ in the population, research shows that your brain isn’t capable of paying close attention to more than one complex task at a time.
Researchers who study attention say that effective multi-tasking is nearly impossible. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell even describes multi-tasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”
Sure, you can check your email while eating your lunch, or listen to music while walking. But innate activities such walking, chewing, and breathing don’t require you to pay attention, whereas activities such as reading, tapping out a text message, or driving a car do require attention.
Why paying attention to two things at once is a struggle
“The brain can perform simultaneous tasks at once, but attention has capacity limitations,” says Associate Professor Paul E. Dux, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Queensland, “When you do only one thing at a time, you’re better at that task than when you’re doing multiple things concurrently.”
Take the classic multi-tasking scenario of talking on a mobile phone while driving (an ill-advised activity that many people believe they’ve mastered). When David Strayer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah and his team observed 56,000 drivers as they approached an intersection, the majority of drivers who were talking on their phone failed to stop in accordance with traffic laws. And it didn’t matter if the driver was using a handheld or hands-free device. Even with both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel, drivers’ performance was impaired.
Stayer’s research shows that performance deteriorates drastically when attention is split between tasks: more mistakes are made and it takes longer to finish up each activity.
What’s going on in the brain when it tries to multi-task?
The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for choosing what to pay attention to, and for coordinating inputs from other brain areas.
By scanning the prefrontal cortex of people while they multi-tasked, scientists at the INSERM in Paris found that when people focused on a single task, the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together. But when people attempt to perform two tasks at once, the sides work independently. Neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin says his study demonstrates that while the brain can switch back and forth between two tasks, “we might be in great trouble when we try to juggle more than two tasks, simply because we have only two frontal lobes.”
Are women better multi-taskers than men?
Koechlin’s imaging studies uncovered no differences in ability to switch between tasks in the prefrontal cortices of men or women. But other researchers studying real life scenarios such as finding lost keys, believe there might be some truth to the claim women are superior multi-taskers.
Women have a much better planning and strategy for finding the key whereas men tend to jump to into it and be far less organised and thorough. “It's as if they don't stop to reflect and plan for a moment,” says Professor Keith Laws from the University of Hertfordshire.
But while the ability to develop strategies for coping with the multiple tasks in the everyday life could give women an edge, "nobody can juggle two, never mind three, 'complex' tasks at the same time."
Multi-tasking secrets: lessons from super-taskers
David Strayer’s research uncovered a few rare people who possess extraordinary multi-tasking ability. These so-called ‘super-taskers’ exhibit different patterns of brain activity when multi-tasking compared to ordinary people: they show less activity in pre-frontal cortex during multi-tasking, suggesting their brains are functioning more efficiently.
Strayer thinks that pilots of high-performance aircraft, high-end chefs who can cook several meals at the same time to perfection, and elite doctors in hospital emergency rooms might all be more likely to be super-taskers. “All other things being equal, we suspect that super-taskers will rise to the top in any occupation that places a high demand on juggling various attention-demanding tasks at the same time.”
The ability to multi-task is probably genetic to a large extent, says Stayer. “You are either born with the neural architecture that allows you to overcome the usual multi-tasking challenges, or you aren’t. Their brains are doing something we can’t do.”