In our fast-paced, electronic-driven society, our minds race from idea to idea, our eyes flit between computer screen, cellphone and tablet. Nearly every active person, teenager through adult, feels the pressure to pay attention to more than one thing at a time — to multitask. Performing multiple things at a time has become the skill to master in the 21st century.
But does multitasking even exist?
From the 1990’s to the present, research has questioned whether the human brain can perform more than one task at a time, whether it is possible to learn new material while engaging in multiple mental activities simultaneously. Cutting edge scientific studies indicate that the brain cannot perform multiple tasks simultaneously, even with extensive training.
So what really happens when we try to multitask?
Current theories on cognition (the basis for executive functioning) support the idea that our brains are constantly switching, pausing and refocusing continuously as we move from task to task. In reality we don’t pay attention to two or more things simultaneously but switch between them rapidly.
Are we gaining anything from this rapid mental activity?
Studies show that switching from task to task in the attempt to multitask results in far greater errors. On top of that, research has proven that this switching takes far longer — sometimes twice as long– as compared to working on tasks sequentially.
Do we lose anything from trying to multitask?
Consider one mental activity that is linked to multitasking: continuous partial attention, a process that involves skimming the surface of data and picking out relevant information before moving to the next idea. When you engage in continuous partial attention, you study information at a superficial level. By continuously shifting and refocusing your attention, you become accustomed to skimming but not studying anything in detail.
The drive to do more than one mental activity at a time seems to reduce our ability to focus and complete tasks thoroughly, as well as making it take longer. By trying to do more than one task at a time, we actually impair our cognitive ability to maintain focus.
So why try to do more than one thing at a time and end up not doing anything well?
Check back next week for more thoughts on executive function skills, speech and communications.