Everyone knows that multi-tasking means doing more than one task at the same time. Let’s face it, all of us multi-task fairly regularly. But did you know that for the brain not all multi-tasking is the same? Cognitively, multi-tasking is of two different kinds.

1) Multi-tasking that involves different brain process or structure. e.g. Humming a song while walking, listening to the radio while driving or thinking of the solution to a problem as you doodle.

2) Multi-tasking that involves cognitively similar tasks. e.g. Checking your facebook updates as you chat with your friend and prepare your assignment or work on the report that your boss needs tomorrow.

Neuroscientists are beginning to accumulate plenty of research findings that indicate the second kind of multi-tasking is not conducive to optimum brain function. What are their conclusions?

Tom James the unicycling juggler. . .
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Multi-tasking is not a myth. But multi-tasking without a cost is a myth.

The short-term cost: Multi-tasking that involves cognitively similar tasks exacts a price. In the short-term, our brain can perform much better when we do each task separately rather than collectively.

Here a short and funny video that makes this point.

The long-term cost: However, more than the short-term cost is the long-term implication. The part of the brain that facilitates multi-tasking is the part responsible for surface learning or by-rote learning. Frequent multi-tasking strengthens this part of the brain at the cost of the brain’s ability to learn deeply.

So multitasking is really a question of surface vs deep learning.

How does the adolescent brain develop?

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien looks at what could be happening to teenagers’ brains as they develop in a rapid-fire, multitasking world of technology and gadgets.

And in this video, Stanford experts say even trying to multi-task can impair your cognitive control. Communication professor Cliff Nass and researcher Eyal Ophir explain why.

So should you multi-task? If what you are doing is important to you, give it your complete un-divided attention. Your brain will thank you for it. And you will be happy with your choice.

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