Can We Really Multitask?

8066better-multitasking-through-caffeine-postersThe latest post at PsyBlog discusses a classic study on multitasking, in which two participants were reportedly taught to read and write at the same time.  From the post:

Professor Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues at Cornell University wanted to know whether we can really divide our conscious attention between two demanding tasks, like reading and writing. To find out they recruited two participants willing to put in 29 hours of practice over a 6 week period: Diane and John were their volunteers (Spelke, Hirst & Neisser, 1976). Before the training Diane and John’s normal reading and comprehension rates were measured, so it could be compared with post-training. Then Spelke and colleagues set about their three-phase training regime.

There are a number of objections to this study, all discussed at PsyBlog (the most obvious being that two people is not a legitimate sample size). The one that’s most relevant to the current debate on this topic is this:

Diane and John were learning to switch their attention from one task to the other very quickly, not focus on both at the same time.

The multitasking vs task-switching debate is an important one because it touches on a fundamental aspect of brain functioning: whether attention can be simultaneously divided between two or more tasks–each performed with equal precision–or if attention must be switched between the tasks, like a railroad switch redirecting a train. 

The University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Labortatory has done quite a lot of work on this topic, which you can review in depth here.  Great information to be found there if you want to learn more about the essential aspects of the debate.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, is an outspoken critic of multitasking. I’ll wrap this post with a snippet from his Brain Rules video series–another good resource for those wanting to pursue this topic further.

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6 Comments

Filed under About Neuroscience

6 responses to “Can We Really Multitask?

  1. To answer your question: in a word, no. Multitasking is a myth. And I’m not alone in that claim. Thanks for the terrific post!

  2. I do think time is time and the more you try to do at once the less of each thing you are going to get done in that amount of time than if you had just focused on one thing, but you get many more things started… This may or may not be beneficial as it leads to a higher complexity of tasks and thus harder choices while giving you a higher probability of having a high ROI task in that list. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have time for anything, but a ton of things to do. Here’s a suggestion from Ideabuds.com.

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  4. Pingback: Multitasking, Confounds, and the Yeti « higherprocess.com Blog

  5. No we can’t multitask.When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. When we speak of multitasking, what we really mean is that we are switchtasking: switching rapidly between one task and another. Yet, each time we switch, no matter how quickly that switch takes place in our mind, there is a cost associated with it. It’s an economic term called switching cost—and the switching cost is high.

  6. No we can’t multitask.When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. When we speak of multitasking, what we really mean is that we are switchtasking: switching rapidly between one task and another. Yet, each time we switch, no matter how quickly that switch takes place in our mind, there is a cost associated with it. It’s an economic term called switching cost—and the switching cost is high.

    To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at http://www.davecrenshaw.com/exercise

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