Like other sixteen year olds, my son writes a history paper, texts his girlfriend, and plays Battlefield II on his computer—all at the same time.
Me: You can’t possibly do all three well. Him: Practice makes perfect. Me: Riiiiight. Him: <shrug>
New research is on his side (darn it). René Marois, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University is co-author of a study on multitasking. Marois says there are two major ways tasks can interfere with one another: If they both require concentration (we’re bad at splitting our attention effectively) or if they make demands on the same neural resources, e.g., trying to carry on two conversations at the same time. His study focused on the former and showed how people can become efficient multitaskers when tasks require less attention.
“Our results imply the fundamental reason we are lousy multitaskers is because our brains process each task slowly, creating a bottleneck at the central stage of decision making,” he says. With practice, we can learn to process more quickly.
Researchers on another project asked a different question: Does multitasking affect your ability to concentrate when you aren’t multitasking? They tested the concentration of students who multitask frequently and other students who multitask but not all the time. The three tests measured students’ ability to ignore irrelevant information, organize items, and switch tasks. Each test required the students to do only one thing at a time. Students who spent less time multitasking did better on every test than students who multitask frequently.
Finally, experts agree that no one truly multitasks. Instead, the brain toggles between, say, history paper, Battlefield II, and girlfriend so quickly that it gives the illusion of multitasking. And oh, how we love that illusion.