Training Your Brain to Multitask


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.

  1. SeoNext says

    All this junk about multi-tasking. What’s with the sudden obsession of something so incredibly mundane. Is everyone THAT obsessed with both the great and miniscule differences in performance and comparing it. I’ve known since i could talk that the more things you try to do at the same time – the less satisfactory the result. Want something done well you must focus.its very usefull post for many people’s.thank you so much.

  2. Tanya Mitchell says

    Multi-tasking is actually very important. Driving the car, work, and sports all require this skill. The better and faster you are the less likely you crash the car, and more likely you go farther in work and play. This skill can also be trained and we see incredible changes after only months at training with the LearningRx programs I work with. Brain training works!

  3. Naomi Niles says

    Did you see that article last week in Yahoo News that mentioned the Standford study that showed that multitasking actually makes you worse at multitasking? Kind of scary.

    I can see the need for some multi-tasking like Tanya mentions with driving the car or sports. I think it depends a lot on the number of things you are doing. Driving requires doing a lot of multitasking anyway. I never add things to it like eating or talking on the cell phone.

    I’ve never been a fan of multitasking myself. When I do that, I feel like I spend my whole day working, but not actually getting anything done. For that reason, I often turn off the phone and email when I need to get serious work done.

  4. Great post! Multitasking is really an excellent way to get a lot done in a short span of time. But in most cases and for most people, Multitasking turns out to be a source of anxiety and frustration as they are not able to concentrate well and focus. I think it would be better to first learn to ability to focus well on one task at a time and complete it with full attention and then add more takes one at a time. In other words, working mindfully is the best way to multitask. Keep up the great work!

  5. Papillon says

    Piano is good example of the requirements and impact of training for multitasking.

    I have a daughter who is learning this instrument. First she learnt how to play the right hand, the left hand but she was unable to play both hands simultaneously. Then she is taught two hands play, with one focus of attention but sufficient _automatic_ gestures to move simultaneously both hands.

    On the other hand, it takes *5 to 10 years* of *dedicated training* to master this *very specific multitasking* exercice.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting approach to piano training, Papillon. Playing that instrument is indeed a multitasking challenge. In addition to the right and left hands, the feet may be working the pedals and the pianist may be reading music or following the motions of a conductor.


  6. Radu says

    It seems normal to perform more routine tasks at the same time. Imagine driving and taking a phone call at the same time. While you focus on the phone call your brain is doing the driving automatically. It most often happen that after the call is finished you don’t even recall driving at all, it is like you just teleported from one place to another.
    There’s nothing new in this, but I do wonder: Is there any performance difference in multitasking from a gender perspective?

  7. Luis says

    Actually, most musical instruments require multitasking. You need both your hands in most of them, and sometimes your mouth, your feet, etc.
    For example, the drums:
    I think the drums are more of an example of multitasking than piano, since your use both your hands and your feet.

  8. Vijaya says

    It is very true that a person cannot give 100 % attention to more than 1 work at a time. And to get 100% effective and efficient work, it needs 100 % concentration. So even if the person tries to do multitasking it will affect somewhere at effectiveness or efficiency or both.

  9. SEO Desk says

    Always multitasking myself when everyone is in the office you can get questions from about 5 people at once. Trying to reply to all of them without getting confused!!

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