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Brain Awareness Week: Is multi-tasking bad for your brain?

March 12, 2012

You may think multi-tasking makes you more efficient but scientists are discovering that it often makes us less efficient.

Advances in brain scanning technology now allow us to view brain activity when people try to perform more than one complex task at a time. The results are surprising, showing that the brain isn’t good at juggling two or three things at once and this puts far more demand on our brains than if we did them one after another.

This is because multi-tasking denies the brain the time it needs to pause so that it can grow neural connections and develop inner resources. Daniel Siegel, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School in America said “When you do several things at once, you tend to do them on autopilot and fail to engage the parts of the brain that form strong neural connections.”

Interesting facts

  1. The least efficient form of multi-tasking occurs when we try to perform similar tasks at the same time, such as talking on the phone and emailing, because each task competes to use the same part of the brain. This causes our brains to slow down.
  2. The notion that women are better at multi-tasking seems to be a myth which is better explained by the fact that women are generally happier to try doing a number of things at once.
  3. Professor Russell Poldrack, a psychologist at the University of California, conducted brain scan research which found that doing something else while trying to learn, such as watching TV while doing homework, sends information to an inappropriate part of the brain. Instead of sending information to the hippocampus as it is supposed to, an area of the brain involved in storing and recalling information, the information is sent to the striatum, a region involved in learning new skills from where it is difficult to retrieve ideas and facts.
  4. Besides decreasing your efficiency, multi-tasking can cause poor short term memory and decision making, and the effects of high stress levels may even contribute to weight gain.

Coping strategies

While it’s important to try spending less time multi-tasking, it’s not practical to mono-task all the time. Here are some useful coping strategies

  1. Focus on non-verbal cues when conversing with others
  2. Try to be more aware of what you are thinking
  3. Practice multi-tasking with simple tasks
  4. Reduce multi-tasking in the afternoon after lunch when it’s more likely to cause overload
  5. Meditate – brain scans of non-religious Westerners who meditate have shown increased development in the brain areas associated with attention and memory

Interested in learning more about the Fast ForWord program? Have a question about learning, neuroscience and/or education? Contact the team of health and education professionals at Sonic Learning.

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