Synopsis: Multitasking seems like a necessity for most people, and most of us think it inproves our efficiency. However, studies show that only a tiny proportion of people can juggle tasks well. Researchers discuss why our brains can’t do two things at once, and why “supertaskers” may be different.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Dr. David Strayer, Professor of Cognition Neurosciences, University of Utah; Dr. Jayson Watson, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Utah

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Nancy Benson: These days, just about everybody multitasks, at least once in a while. It’s hard not to. Our jobs can leave us juggling multiple chores at once, with plenty of distractions on top of that. But the human brain isn’t built to do two things at once. Most people can’t efficiently work on a spreadsheet while carrying on a conversation.

Dr. David Strayer: Yeah, we can walk and maybe chew gum, and probably get away with it, because those don’t really require a lot of attention, but when it comes to really paying attention to two or more things at the same time, when you try and do that juggling, you’re gonna drop a ball one of these days.

Benson: That’s Dr. David Strayer, Professor Of Cognition Neurosciences At The University Of Utah.

Strayer: Basically, the brain is really serially processing one activity and then switching to another. We’re not truly multitasking for most of it. So, when you’re trying to multitask, you’re allocating attention to that one task, say driving, and it’s really not paying attention to the other task very well. So, if you look at, say, the quality of a conversation, all of a sudden, you know, the ability to be able to really process what’s going on, and to actually fully take in what someone is saying is degraded. So, there is that kind of trade off where the two tasks are competing for attention. And then, also, we find that when you stop one activity and then switch to the other, say you hang up the phone, that you’re not instantly clear of all of the cobwebs of that multitasking activity.

Dr. Jayson Watson: Most people are actually quite poor at multitasking, and depending upon how you want to define poor, as many as 97.5% of the population is actually quite poor at multitasking.

Benson: Dr. Jayson Watson is Associate Professor Of Psychology At The University Of Utah, and a colleague of Strayer in a number of studies on multitasking.

Watson: Based on some of our data, you can sometimes find a performance documents to where people will be anywhere between 5 or 10 and 20 or 30 percent worse on the dual task compared to the single task. So, it’s a pretty substantial impairment in terms of performance. Let’s say you were doing some math problems, maybe trying to memorize something, things along those lines; you might expect that when you combine those two tasks, versus doing them alone, maybe your math performance goes from, say, getting 80 or 90 percent right to perhaps getting 65 or 70 percent right. So, it’s going to be a noticeable decrement in terms of performance.

Strayer: Depends a little bit on how effortful the tasks are, but parts of the brain that would let you know “hey I’m not doing very well” are otherwise occupied with multitasking.

Benson: But if people are so bad at multitasking, why do we insist on doing it? Strayer says almost everyone believes they’re pretty good at it. And we think it improves our efficiency. But that’s only because multitasking itself blinds us to how we’re really doing.

Stayer: The reason why happens to do with parts of the brain that really are trying to coordinate all that multitasking activity. It’s largely the prefrontal cortex, the front parts of your brain that are really kind of involved in switching from one task to another, avoiding distractions, keeping you on task and so forth. When you’re trying to multitask, you’re really placing lots of demands on those prefrontal cortex areas of the brain–the intentional circuits for executive control. But, also, while you’re using that part of the brain to multitask, those are the same regions that are responsible for seeing whether or not you’re doing well. They’re kind of the self monitoring, self-awareness parts of the brain as well, those same regions. So, what you’re seeing is the reason you think you’re good at multitasking is because parts of the brain that would let you know “hey I’m not doing very well” are otherwise occupied with multitasking.

Benson: What’s more, Watson says, a lot of multitaskers are simply unable to resist every distraction that comes along.

Watson: If you do engage in multitasking a lot, on various kinds of measures of impulsivity and sensation seeking, you’d score quite high. So, the person that’s multitasking a lot, thinks they’re good at it, actually are poor at it, and are actually in fact objectively being more impulsive and more sensation seeking, and so that’s kind of the third piece of the puzzle.

Benson: But even if we’re all pretty bad at multitasking, some of us are probably a little better than others. Watson and Strayer started looking for those people a few years ago to see how they’re different from the rest of us. But they didn’t figure on finding anyone who can literally do two things at once, and do them well.

Strayer: Our expectation, to be honest, was that we wouldn’t find anybody who had super multitasking abilities. But when we started to kind of look at individual differences with hundreds of subjects that we’d been running in our laboratory, we found a handful–about 2% of the total population of people we studied—who, when they tried to do two tasks, most of them were able to be performed when they were done together just as well as when they were done by themselves. We did it in the context of driving to begin with, so, we had a driving simulator and people were driving on interstate section of the roadway, and they were also performing kind of a memory math task.

Watson: These are not uncommon kinds of things that people do. We were asking them to memorize words, to do different kinds of math problems, to maintain following distance behind a lead vehicle. As for task goals for a driving type task, we were asking them to keep at a certain following distance, and things of that sort, and push the break pedal when a car in front of them pushed the break, so it’s a pretty challenging task. There were three or four different tasks embedded in there that are really very much related to real world driving and real world phone conversations that people have. You can imagine, when you’re having a phone conversation, you’d  remember the things that people are talking about, that’s kind of the whole point of having a phone conversation. There’s usually an expectation that there will be some dialogue, and some memory involved. And, you know, when you do those kinds of tasks what you actually find is that almost everyone was incapable of doing the multitasking. Their conversation suffered; their driving performance suffered.

Benson: However, Watson and Strayer were surprised to find that some people really are good at multitasking. About two percent of their subjects did just as well while multitasking as they did when they devoted all of their attention to just one task. Some did even better. The researchers call these people “supertaskers,” and now they’re starting to figure out what makes these people different.

Strayer: We did some brain imaging to see if there’s something interesting about the way that their brains are operating, and we found that there were areas in the prefrontal cortex, parts of the brain that are the multitasking centers, that actually were super efficient for these multitasking experts, these supertaskers. So, where everybody else’s brain is kind of going into overdrive, and you see lots of metabolic activity in these prefrontal cortex areas of the brain, that frontal polar region is where its called, what you find is that these supertaskers are performing better than everybody else, and their brains are still nice and kind of working fairly easy.

Benson: One hypothesis is that supertaskers are so efficient that they really can do two things at once in two different parts of the brain. Or, perhaps they can switch back and forth between tasks so quickly and effortlessly, that it’s almost the same thing. Research is ongoing to try and find out. But it appears supertaskers are born, not made. No amount of practice makes normal people any better at it. So Watson and Strayer’s advice is to avoid multitasking whenever you can.

Strayer: For the vast majority of us, if we do it lots of the time, quality of our work suffers. And we’re also finding, in other related research, it tends to stress us out, degrades our quality of work. It makes us feel all stressed out and time pressured and everything like that. When we have done studies and a number of people have followed this stuff as well, where they’ve actually taken people and said, “we just want you to do one thing at a time and you can break it up into say 20 minutes of one activity and then you can take a break in 20 minutes but in that 20 minutes don’t be interrupted by e-mail or text messages or phone messages, just put all that stuff on pause but the productivity improves, the quality of the work improves and the level of stress decrease itself. Lesson learned is, while we can multitask we don’t necessarily do it well and if you do it excessively it doesn’t really promote quality work or a quality lifestyle.

Benson: You can find out more about multitasking research through links on our website… You’ll find archives of our programs there, too, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.  Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra.  I’m Nancy Benson.

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