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Question: Can humans actually multitask?

Answer: It’s very rare that an individual can actually perform two or more tasks at the same time. Most of us are serial unitaskers. Trying to multitask produces changes in the brain that can cause depression, anxiety and actually decrease productivity. You read that correctly– decrease productivity. In short, multitasking is bad for your overall mental health. Fortunately, you can train your brain to be more effective at focused serial unitasking.

What’s wrong with multitasking?

The term multitasking wasn’t even in the lexicon until the mid-1960s, when IBM announced a computer that had the capability of completing more than one task at a time. Now, it’s hard to find an employer or job applicant that isn’t focused on the highly sought-after skill of handling multiple projects at once.

It is possible for our brains to multitask if one of the tasks is not cognitively demanding. Walking and chewing gum, for example, is quite possible because gum-chewing requires no actual brain power. The problem comes when trying to do two things at once that tax the brain.

The human brain cannot actually give its full attention to two tasks at once. Instead, it toggles back and forth between the tasks, resulting in neither task getting the attention it deserves. With each switch, there is a loss in performance and accuracy. Try to multiply a number in your head while reading a book or watch a movie while having an intense discussion about the universe with a friend…you can’t do justice to both at once.

“Distracted” driving is a perfect example. Most everyone agrees that texting and driving is dangerous. Most would also say that driving while using a handheld phone is risky. Although, most of these same people believe they themselves are quite capable of doing both successfully! The majority of drivers, as well as lawmakers, believe that it is perfectly safe to drive and talk on a phone as long as it is hands-free. They are wrong.

The problem with talking on a phone and driving has little to do with what our hands are doing at the time; it’s all about what our brains are doing. Conversing is cognitively demanding, as is driving. Instead of doing both adequately, our brains keep switching from one task to the other. In addition to neither really getting our full attention, there is also a gap as the brain switches from task to task.

Researchers say that switching between tasks can cause a 40 percent loss in productivity. Drivers using cell phones have been shown to have slower reaction times than drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.08– the legal intoxication limit in all states. Statistically, talking on a cell phone increases the risk of accidents fourfold, whether it is handheld or hands-free.

Talking on a cell phone is quite different from talking with someone who is in the car, as that person is aware of the driving environment. The person on the other end of the phone is not and therefore, requires your attention and concentration.

Multitasking and the brain

Not only does multitasking cause gaps in our thinking, it does actual harm to our brains. Switching between tasks uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain making us feel tired much quicker than we normally would. Researchers say people who are chronic multitaskers typically eat more and consume more caffeine.

Studies have also shown that people who multitask, especially when technology is involved, have reduced grey matter in their brains specifically in areas associated with cognitive control and the regulation of motivation and emotion.

Any time we are engaged in an activity that requires our attention, the prefrontal cortex of the brain begins working and coordinating messages with the rest of our brain’s systems. With one task, both sides of the prefrontal cortex work together in harmony.

By adding another task, the left and right sides of the brain must work independently. Researchers in Paris asked study participants to complete two cognitive tasks at the same time while undergoing functional MRIs. They found that the brains of the participants essentially split in half, causing them to forget details and make three-times as many mistakes as they would doing just one task.

Multitasking has also been associated with memory problems. A study two years ago found that people who continually multitask, using at least one electronic device, had weakness in their working memories and long-term memories.

According to researchers, people who multitask work faster but produce less. A study out of Stanford compared groups of workers based on their tendency to multitask. Those who considered themselves heavy multitaskers and believed it boosted their performances were actually found to be worse than those who undertook a single task at a time. The heavy multitaskers had problems organizing their thoughts and were even slower at switching from one task to another.

Multitasking has also been shown to increase the heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results of these effects on the brain and body include:

  • Lower overall productivity
  • Less ability to filter irrelevant information
  • More mistakes
  • Increased stress, depression and anxiety
  • Premature brain aging
  • Poor impulse control

Multitasking can become addictive, and for all of the reasons listed above, put lives in danger.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Unfortunately, multitasking is so ingrained in our society that most people who do it have no desire to stop. When and if they do decide to end this destructive behavior, they can find an effective solution in CBT.

CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented treatment that teaches the patient to change his thinking and behavior. By doing so, he literally rewires his brain. This is highly effective for injured workers with chronic pain as they, too, have undergone brain changes that must be altered in order for them to be able to cope with their pain and become functional.

The techniques we use in CBT can also be used to help rewire the brains of chronic multitaskers. One technique we often use is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the exact opposite of multitasking. This simple form of meditation helps train the person’s brain to focus on the present moment. This heightens awareness, reduces stress and increases the ability to concentrate. It also slows the brain’s aging.

Conclusion

The brain is a fascinating organ. Scientists have discovered that it changes throughout our lifetime, and that we can have a tremendous impact on how it functions. Using CBT is one way to change our brain, improve our time management skills and change the thought patterns that contribute to our desire to multitask. Injured workers who learn these skills can turn their lives around.

IMCS – Integrated Medical Case Solutions – is the premier behavioral medicine network for pain and trauma response with evidence-based outcomes and a proven track record for transforming workers’ compensation cases. IMCS makes intervention efficient with a national network of 1,000+ psychologists and psychiatrists in all 50 states.