Biology 101: The Myth Of Multitasking

As society advanced, the thought that people can multitask (do multiple things at once) grew even stronger. And it has become a concrete belief of many: “Oh yeah, I rock at multitasking” is a sentence you hear often when someone is asked how they pulled something off.

Well, as my first post in the major I have a degree from, I hate to break it to you but multitasking does not – scientifically – exist.

Don’t cry. I shall elaborate.

Sure, it might seem that a person can do two things simultaneously. But a person cannot do two things simultaneously if both of those things require conscious activity.

Meaning: you cannot drive and read at the same time and be 100% aware of both. You cannot watch TV and study and be 100% efficient in both. One of the two tasks has to go into the background.

When you answer a phone while driving is not an example of multitasking as well. Driving, especially after years of expertise, becomes an automated action (thanks to a part of your brain called the basal ganglia). So you actually drive without putting much conscious effort into it. It is an automated action. Therefore, you’re not really doing two things at once, since only one of those things (answering the phone) requires you to be mentally active.

The brain is very good at deluding itself. Most of you might have closed this tab or browser window in outrage by now, thinking that you are the exception. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not. This is how all of our brains are wired. There’s a limit to the amount of information we can process and the speed with which this processing happens. The brain sometimes gives the illusion that you are doing many things at once by quickly switching tasks, in which case you’re not actually doing all of those things at the same time. You think you’re actually fully aware of everything around you, but you’re most definitely not.

Even while writing this, I’m listening to Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain” and if I focus on the song, I lose focus on what I’m writing. However, when I switch fast enough between focusing on the song and writing, I get the illusion that I’m doing them both at the same time.

Think about two tasks that require you to be fully mentally aware while doing them: talking on the phone, while writing a paper. Have you tried doing a combination of those? It’s pretty difficult to accomplish writing the paper if you’re busy talking on the phone because the two tasks interfere with each other in the brain, each wanting full attention – and ultimately, you fail at one of them.

So next time someone asks you how you pulled something off, tell them you’re good at organizing your time or something. Do not brag about an excessively powerful mental faculty you do not possess.

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8 thoughts on “Biology 101: The Myth Of Multitasking

  1. As I was reading your article I was having a flashback to psyc 235: cognitive neuroscience. One of the most interesting courses I took.

    The brain is so fascinating!

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    • That means the mission behind this post was successful 😀

      And yes, the course w/ professor Dietrich was brilliant! And the brain is an absolutely stunning faculty/organ!

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  2. i’ve always been horrible at multitasking & everyone used to make a huge fuss about it !! i used to say that i have 2 ears but only one center of attention hahaha love ur post!

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