The Myth of Multitasking

Is it just semantics?

An attendee at one of my sessions pulled me aside to talk about the NeuroMyth of multitasking. He asked, “So when a mother is cooking dinner, holding a baby on her hip and talking on the phone — she’s not multitasking?”

She’s not, but let’s come back to why.

David Sousa and neurobiologist John Medina among others call out that multitasking is a myth. We just don’t. In fact, Medina states we are biologically incapable of it.

Multitasking is an illusion.

And it’s a hard concept to let go because we think we’ve experienced it.

Let me point out what we’re talking about here is our conscious information processing. While we are processing whatever stimuli that is holding our attention (because it is interesting/meaningful/relevant to us) there are ongoing processes alongside whatever we are focused upon such as our ANS and the RAS.

ANS: the Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for governing the body’s internal organs and reflexes. It keeps your heart beating and your lungs breathing while ready to initiate a fight or flight response to any presenting threat. You don’t have to think it through, the ANS is always working behind the scenes on your behalf.

RAS: the Reticular Activating System is your brain’s attention center. It’s responsible for the brain’s alertness and sorting through external stimuli picking out what deserves our attention – particularly filtering threats. The RAS likes patterns and if it notices a stimuli that matches an interest of yours (squirrel!), your attention is diverted.

Why is this NOT multitasking?

Because these survival processes are reflexive — they are ongoing — they draw upon their own brain resources.

Attention — what we attend to — such as cooking, talking on the phone, and bouncing a baby on our hip — are intentional reflective actions. While you are conducting all of these things you are truely only attending fully to one at a time. Instead of multi-tasking you are task-switching.

Which is why there is a higher likelihood dinner will brown before you know it or the baby’s fussing will draw attention away fom the phone conversation with Aunt Margaret.

The brain attends to one input at a time — sequentially.

[[“Here’s why it matters: Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.” John Medina, Brain Rules]]

Which means students working on other assignments in our classrooms are not fully attending to the subject at hand. Which means online students with multiple screens open are setting themselves up for a greater likelihood of errors in their work. Which means our conference attendees who are tweeting about our sessions (God bless them!) are missing out — they can’t fully attend to the experience in the room while task switching.

So, no — it’s not just semantics — it’s biology. And it has consequences in learning. We can task switch quickly but must be prepared for the errors this introduces when our focus is disrupted. We can expect learning will take longer and our memory may be missing critical details.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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