The Brain Issue: The multitasking myth

Many+students+believe+they+can+multitask%2C+however+science+generally+disagrees.
Back to Article
Back to Article

The Brain Issue: The multitasking myth

Many students believe they can multitask, however science generally disagrees.

Many students believe they can multitask, however science generally disagrees.

Katherine Stobbe

Many students believe they can multitask, however science generally disagrees.

Katherine Stobbe

Katherine Stobbe

Many students believe they can multitask, however science generally disagrees.

Angela Scheer was in the middle of a lesson when she noticed students heads tilted down toward their phones. The new Mario Kart app had captured their attention in a way that her most recent lesson had not. Scheer, psychology teacher, was quick to guide their attention back to the lesson, because she knew these students were directing the bulk of their focus on the game. And although some students believe they are capable of multitasking in situations like these most research would disagree.
“Less than 5% of the population can actually multitask,” Scheer said. “Multitasking means your conscious focused attention is in two places at one time, and that’s not possible for the average human mind.”
According to The Harvard Business Review, efficiency can drop to 40% and long-term memory decreases while multitasking. When people decide to text and drive, read and listen to music, or pay attention to a lecture while working on other homework, their brain struggles to keep up. They get into an accident. They skip lines in the text. They miss important lessons. This is especially prominent in tasks that require similar skills and similar attention. According to Science ABC, this is generally due to an inability to focus on tasks that require higher level processing.
“We learned about it [in AP Psychology], and we can’t [multitask],” Eileen Finley, senior, said. “I thought that I could text and drive, or switch music while driving, but I can’t.”
‘Multitasking,’ or rapid attention switching, becomes difficult when the tasks become more challenging. According to Science ABC, an excellent example of this would be trying to hold a conversation while reading a book, as both of these tasks require similar brain functions, such as language and word processing. The text is not comprehended by the reader, and major parts of the conversation can’t be recalled. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), this is because the brain must quickly switch between the two tasks instead of dedicating its focus to one of them, and it is especially important for young people to focus on one task at a time, as this rapid switch can take a toll on learning. If you never develop the skill of focus, then it leads to a variety of problems.
“I’ll be doing like five different assignments at once,” Rowan Burba, junior, said. “I’m not really sure if [multitasking] decreases my productivity, but I feel like it helps me because I can’t focus on just one thing at a time.”
Most scientists agree there is no successful way to increase the ability to multitask. The Cleveland Clinic’s website states that attempting to multitask is actually damaging to the brain. According to The Cleveland Clinic, to attempt to multitask will produce no positive results, but rather inhibit many important brain functions and bring about more stress and less focus. According to TIME magazine, multitasking does not eliminate the pressure people believe they are alleviating, but rather elevates it. Most people can recognize when others are multitasking they are missing things, but refuse to acknowledge that they themselves are in a state of panic when they attempt it.
The human mind struggles to keep up with more than one task at a time, and many people begin to feel the toll of attempting to multitask. Mindfulness, productivity and overall learning increase as focus is devoted on one task at a time.
“Students tell me they listen to music and study, which can be helpful because the music is the thing you have turned into the low road,” said Scheer. “You aren’t focusing on the lyrics, you aren’t really paying attention to what you’re doing.”