The Multitasker's Dilemma

For everyone who thinks they're maximizing their time by texting while driving, or posting Tweets and Facebook updates while compiling sales data in another window, or cooking while watching TV, cognitive scientists beg to differ. Multitasking isn't just ineffective, it can be dangerous. 

 

This Is Your Brain on Multitasking

Brains of multitaskers are structurally different than brains of monotaskers.

I don't multitask. Or, I do it so badly that I end up dropping everything in a massive tangle of badness with me standing baffled at its center. This frustrates my wife to no end. She can balance on a beach ball while writing things in her calendar, listening to Radio Lab, text-messaging, and juggling chainsaws (it's a neat trick—and also kind of hot). I hold that monotasking allows me to get a string of things done right, one at a time. Kristi thinks that multitasking is a prerequisite for inclusion in post-Stone Age society, and that monotaskers should be rounded up and reprogrammed at underground government facilities.

The question is, is there hope for us monotaskers? Should monotaskers like me strive for less inept sessions of multitasking, or should we just give it up completely?

For my book, Brain Trust, I posed the question to David Strayer, director of the applied cognition lab at the University of Utah, who studies multitasking in the fertile realm of distracted driving. His studies found that "ninety-eight percent of people can't multitask—they don't do either task as well." That's certainly not surprising to me, being firmly among the 98 percent.

But here's the interesting part: 2 percent of people can juggle without dropping a ball or, indeed, without any ball even sailing less high—they show no ill effects from multitasking. Strayer calls these people supertaskers. "The question we had," says Strayer, "is, who are these people?"

To find out, he put supertaskers through a battery of tests, including neuroimaging and genetic evaluation. And he found that, sure enough, the very structure of the supertasker brain looks different than those of 98 percent of us. "These brain regions that differentiate supertaskers from the rest of the population are the same regions that are most different between humans and nonhuman primates," says Strayer. In other words, the brains of supertaskers are just that much further away from those of apes, "the leading edge of evolution," says Strayer. Specifically: "Certain parts of the frontal cortex are recruited in an interesting way," says Strayer. In fact, these areas show less activity when multitasking than do the same areas in normal, human, mammalian, non-alien-overlord brains like mine.

And it's distinct—you either efficiently recruit this region or you don't. You're either a supertasker or you're not. You're either human like me, or a supertasking, blood-drinking, shape-shifting, reptilian alien like my wife.

If you're a supertasker, you know it. Please feel free to continue reading this post on your smartphone or tablet while you drive one-handed and one-eyed down the freeway. But if you're not a supertasker, the overwhelming message of science is this: just give it up already! By multitasking, you do everything less well. Instead, if you want to get the most done right, design your life to monotask. Your brain will thank you for it.

"Writers from Muir to Abbey have talked about the benefits of getting into nature," says Strayer, "but we haven't studied it at a neuroscience level until now."

This is attention restoration theory, based partly on the idea that refraining from multitasking in a text-rich environment might detox, rest, and restore fried neurons in the frontal lobe. While Strayer is quick to say that more research is needed, he points out that from a large pool of anecdotal evidence, "After three days, you start to experience radically different thoughts." (For an example, video search "double rainbow.")

And so there may be hope for me, and by extension all of humanity, yet. If you find your frontal lobe freaking out, head for the hills as quickly as possible. You'll meet me on the way. And if you do, please be alert because I'm likely texting and may swerve dangerously.

The Multitasker's Dilemma