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Multitask at Your Own Risk

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s note: Brain Basics from Scientific American Mind is a series of short video primers on the brain and how we feel, think and act. Below is a synopsis of the eighth video in the series written by a guest on this blog, Roni Jacobson, a science journalist based in New York City.

By Roni Jacobson

Every waking moment, you are making judgments about where to focus your attention. If you didn’t, you would be overwhelmed by the vast amount of sensory information in your surroundings. The ability to direct attention, a skill humans share with species as primitive as fruit flies, helps you process what is important to you at the moment and ignore what is not.

Two brain regions are most active when we shift our attention from one thing to another: the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus. The prefrontal cortex is involved in working memory, a mental scratchpad that temporarily holds small amounts of information. Without this scratchpad, it is hard to concentrate on anything. As the sensory relay center of the brain, the thalamus can act as a filter, separating useful information from useless background noise.

When we divide our attention between two tasks, we perform both more poorly than we would if we focused on just one of them. Talking on a cell phone while driving, for example, is dangerous because the conversation distracts you from the road, leading to more accidents. In addition, though perhaps less critically, your attempts to navigate the streets can cause you to lose track of what the other person is saying.

Thus the problem in society today is not too much information, but the misconception that people can process more than they can. You need to put away your phone in the car and turn off the television when you study, because although you may believe you’re a champion multitasker—in fact, you’re not.

Other Brain Basics videos:

Is Your Sense of Humor in Your Genes? Geneticists Crack the Code

Acts of Kindness Explained

Remember When…How Your Brain Builds A Memory

Terrified or Hopping Mad? What’s Going on Inside You

A Transformation of Light: How We See

Quick! What Is The Word for a Pair of Opposites?

The Hidden Power of Others Over You

Photo on blogs page: Courtesy of Elsie esq. via Flickr.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. erozycki 3:58 pm 07/4/2014

    What defines a task? Is throwing a ball one task or more? How do you discriminate among and count tasks? Is language a factor here? We can certainly talk and drive at the same time.

    What about stacking. i.e. ordering incomplete processes and reviewing and completing them later, as does a computer?

    Why should we think that attending to something gives us additional information about it — the Purloined Letter effect.

    Link to this
  2. 2. hkraznodar 5:38 pm 07/14/2014

    @erozycki: Sure we can talk and drive at the same time but research has proven pretty clearly that people who do drive much worse than people who don’t. Unfortunately, since they are not paying as much attention as they should to the driving, they don’t realize just how bad they are driving. Cell phones just make it worse and texting while driving is just another stupid form of suicide.

    The obvious solution is to have self driving cars. Then you can do what you want and not die or kill others.

    Link to this

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