It’s Monday, your inbox is full of unanswered emails, you desk is piled high with paper, and you’ve got a couple of important project deadlines looming. There’s one bright spot: although past research has indicated that people’s ability to multitask, i.e., perform several tasks at once, is very limited, a new study shows one can improve multitasking ability with training. First, the bad news:

Professor Earl Miller of MIT studied the brain activity of volunteers as they performed several different tasks simultaneously. That study revealed that, though the volunteers were seemingly focusing on all tasks at once, their brains had zeroed in on only one or two tasks at a time.

This means there was minimal brain power being exerted for each task, and whatever power was being used, only came in brief, unproductive spurts. [From the NY Daily News - Stop the multitasking madness! Attempting to do it all can cause neurological damage: studies by Issie Lapowski.]

Multitasking has other negatives:

Multitasking like this also makes learning new information virtually impossible. A study by Professor Russell Poldrack, a psychologist at the University of California, compared the brain function of people who study with a distraction, like the TV, to people who study with no distractions.

He found that the information the distracted participants studied actually traveled to a different part of the brain than the information the other volunteers studied.

The article notes that thinking about multitasking can cause a temporary IQ drop of 10 points, and might have negative developmental consequences for children.

Not all multitasking news is bad

For those of us condemned to multitasking, a ray of hope comes from research published in Neuron in June:

“We found that a key limitation to efficient multitasking is the speed with which our prefrontal cortex processes information, and that this speed can be drastically increased through training and practice,” says Paul E. Dux, a former research fellow at Vanderbilt, and now a faculty member at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia…

Before practice, the participants showed strong dual-task interference—slowing down of one or both tasks when they attempted to perform them together. As a result of practice and training, however, the individuals became very quick not only at doing each of the two tasks separately, but also at doing them together. In other words, they became very efficient multi-taskers.

The fMRI data indicate that these gains were the result of information being processed more quickly and efficiently through the prefrontal cortex. [From - Training can improve multitasking ability by Melanie Moran.]

So, it seems, if you must multitask you need to train yourself to perform the individual tasks either separately or together, and your overall throughput while doing them together will improve dramatically. Presumably, this is why most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Sadly, I think this research may not help much for those of us trying to handle multiple tasks that require significant attention and cognitive processing, like responding to emails and making project decisions. While we can probably get somewhat more efficient at these types of tasks, it seems unlikely that it would reach the point where our brain could “chunk” their processing into such small pieces that we approach true multitasking. This training approach should work better where at least one of the tasks is fairly routine in nature.

The best bet for those kinds of activities requiring concentration is to avoid multitasking and interruptions, as research shows it takes us at least 20 minutes to regain our previous concentration level after an interruption. And if you are really drowning in data, check out the Information Overload Research Group.