The current issue of The New Atlantis has a great article on The Myth of Multitasking. Researchers at the NIH have used fMRI to detect which areas of the brain are activated during multitasking–called “task switching” in the study–and discovered that the flow of blood increases to the area of the frontal cortex known as Broadmann area 10, about which little is understood, though it seems that there’s a sort of “brain delay” in this area when task switching that actually takes more time than would be spent focusing attention on one task. Other research suggests that the brain employs an “adaptive executive control” that forces attention by prioritizing tasks in order of importance or serial order (which I take to mean the order of when they came in).
The most intriguing part of the article deals with the effects of task swtiching on how we learn. One of the researchers, Russell Poldrack at UCLA, is quoted from a recent NPR story: “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”
Others seem more optimistic that the brain’s plasticity will allow for the changes in learning that are required to multitask. Maybe we have a case of evolutionary change in our midst, if indeed our brains are aquiring new methods of dealing with huge amounts of information–most especially the rise in population density that has created massive urban centers yielding exponentially increasing stuff, media, data. Maybe, as the author of this article says, we have developed what William James called “acquired inattention” (and he meant that remark to be pejorative). In any case, we’re likely a long way from knowing for sure.