Multitasking: Can Your Brain Really Handle the Load?

Multitasking: Can Your Brain Really Handle the Load?Let’s say you have more items on your to-do list than hours to complete them. And you’re not just dealing with mindless, monotonous tasks either. Some require your real attention—think studying for an exam and listening to a lecture, for example. How do you decide what to do?

Research Shows Multitasking Is Distracting

A recent study attempted to capture the brain’s ability to effectively multitask information. Researchers divided participants into different groups, each with varying levels of distraction, as they attempted to memorize words paired with number values indicating the word’s “importance.”

The results showed that dealing with incoming distractions hindered memorization, but each of the groups’ participants were able to remember the most important words. So, does that mean you can divide your attention, multitask and still be reasonably okay? Eh, well, hold on a minute, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Brain Briefs.

The brain is awesome. It has some multitasking functionality. It can “integrate lots of information when it is all part of the same situation,” says Markman. “A musician playing with a band is listening to what other people are playing, watching the other musicians for cues, playing the instrument, and often feeling the beat and bass. Because this is all part of a single experience, the brain integrates this information.” Thus, it becomes almost automatic.

Your Brain Only Captures the Most Important Info

When there are several things going on at once, Markman says, the attentional systems of the brain tend to pluck information selectively. “Even in that situation, information that is known to be important will seep through,” he says. “That is the source of something called the ‘cocktail party phenomenon.’” Basically, imagine a situation where you’re engaged in conversation with someone, hear another person speak your name across a crowded room, and you immediately turn to hear who said it.

All that said, your brain will typically filter extraneous information—so you want to take this new research with a grain of salt when it comes to multitasking. “You will generally not really pay much attention to things that are not part of the task you are currently engaged in,” says Markman.

In real life activities, that require legitimate focus and brain power, you don’t always know what information is going to be important (like in studying) or what you’re likely to forget (say, memorizing a best man’s speech). “Studies like this involve only memory for disconnected lists of words, some of which people are alerted in advance are important to know,” he explains. “In real situations, we don’t know which bits of information are going to be important, so our attention can’t be drawn to them automatically.”

In addition, most pieces of information people really need to learn are more complex than word lists, says Markman. “Multitasking soaks up the amount of information people can hold in mind at once, called ‘working memory,’ so you cannot think about complicated things while multitasking,” he says.

The Truth About Multitasking

So, multitasking is probably no big deal if you need to wash clothes, do dishes and get ready for a night out. But anything more mentally complex? Be wary. The best strategy when you need to memorize or learn, according to Markman, is simple. “If you have something important to do, then don’t do anything else at the same time,” he says. “Full stop.”

When you have more to do than time to do it, Markman says to prioritize rather than multitask. Although you might compulsively want to make sure you get as much done as possible by doing multiple things at once, it’ll probably hinder your ability to memorize and retain far too much. “Focus on the most important tasks first, and let others fall by the wayside,” he insists. “Part of being a good adult is learning what things you can let slide and what things require your attention.” Ah, yes.

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