What if we got our attention back?

Vanessa Baird makes the case for being true to our brains.

Credit: Jason Strull/Unsplash
Credit: Jason Strull/Unsplash

‘I’m multitasking here!’ How often have you heard it – or even said it yourself?

The phrase is often accompanied with a little smile of pride. A touch of: ‘Aren’t I a clever/busy/important person? Look how much I can do at once!’

Brain science has a rather different tale to tell.

A growing body of studies shows that multitasking is a misnomer and a delusion.

What we are actually doing when so-called ‘multitasking’ is rapidly switching focus from one task to another. And far from making us smarter it makes us more stressed, more error prone, and less intelligent, too.

This is because, whatever we like to believe, the brain is not a multitasking device. Sure, it can do a certain amount of parallel processing, combining auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around us, for example.

But the brain’s attention is more like a spotlight. When you need to pay attention the prefrontal cortex of the brain begins working, helping you to keep focused on a single goal and to carry out that task by co-ordinating messages with other regions of the brain.

Working on a single task means both sides of the prefrontal cortex are working together in harmony. Adding another task forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently – and badly. Scientists at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in Paris saw this when they asked participants undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging to complete two tasks at the same time. The participants forgot details and made three times as many mistakes.

Doing simple natural things like eating and walking simultaneously places far less demand on the prefrontal cortex than, for example, texting while driving (the mental equivalent of driving while drunk, by the way).

Not only does multitasking make us less capable, it may also be lowering our IQ. A London University study found that adult participants who ‘multitasked’ saw their IQ drop 15 points, leaving them with the average IQ of an eight-year-old. (Remember that next time you’re reading your Twitter feed in a meeting.)

Ironically, as a Stanford University study showed, those people who thought they were good at multitasking turned out to be even worse at it than those who thought they were not!

More worrying is evidence that suggests that multitasking is doing actual brain damage. Researchers at the UK’s University of Sussex compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

So, who is benefiting from the multitasking myth? Some employers may think they are. It sits well with other ideas like labour force flexibility and zero-hour contracts, as a way of extracting more out of workers for less pay.

Clearer beneficiaries are the tech titans – the so called ‘attention merchants’ of Tim Wu’s eponymous book – that have penetrated virtually every area and every moment of our lives and turbocharged the multitasking myth.

How can we junk this damaging myth and reclaim our attention?

It’s easy, in theory. In reality, the myth has already hardwired many bad habits. But rather than flitting between tasks, we could dedicate chunks of time to certain tasks. One, then another...

We could ‘unplug’ or restrict screen time. Be selective about what social media we use (if any) or, as Wu suggests, reserve blocks of time to be spent beyond the reach of the attention merchants.

People who multitask by frequently checking their email suffer a reduction in intelligence equivalent to exhaustion or smoking marijuana, writes Rob Hopkins in his new book From What Is To What if…. A Loughborough University study found that after reading an email, taking two minutes on average, it then took people 68 seconds to return to their work and remember what they were doing. An estimated 28 per cent of our working day is wasted in such ways. One business guru recommends checking emails no more than three times a day.

Face-to-face conversations between people might be more meaningful and satisfying, uninterrupted by multitasker device addiction.

Finally, fear of boredom is what often drives multitasking addicts. But boredom has its purpose too, writes Hopkins. ‘Our minds want some kind of stimulation, but there is none to be had. Boredom offers a catalyst for action, a moment to reflect, to go inwards, to let the imagination fire, to daydream.’

Now there’s a thought…