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Is it Wise to Multitask?

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Many people multitask every day, especially when work piles up and it seems impossible to finish all that needs to be done. Multitasking seems like an efficient way to get more done in a set period of time. However, new research shows that this may not be the case. In a recent study, published on April 5 in the journal Human Brain Mapping, scientists found that multitasking actually reduces productivity and causes lapses in attention, compared with working only on one task at a time.

In order to test if humans can retain equal attention when working on multiple tasks simultaneously, scientists ran a test in which they presented participants with short 6.5 minute clips each from “Indiana Jones”, “Star Wars”, and “James Bond” movies. While the participants were watching the movies, scientists ran brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the brain functioned under the added stress of multiple activities. Following this experiment, scientists played 50-second clips from the same movies, but in alternating orders, until the participants had watched 6.5 minutes from all three movies. As in the first test, the scientists also ran brain scans during the 50-second interval clips.

From the tests, the scientists discovered that multitasking interferes with the multitasker’s ability to focus. The areas of the brain responsible for combining bits of information and processing them into a coherent order worked better in the scenarios when the clips were played for 6.5 minutes straight, rather than in short varying bursts. When the brain is forced to concentrate on unrelated topics, the flow of connected thoughts is interrupted, causing inefficiency and an inability to complete any tasks.

Although stress can cause people to think that doing more at a time will benefit them, in reality, the consequences are inefficiency and lack of concentration in any task. Naturally, humans cannot process more than one topic of information at a time without losing focus. The added stress of unproductive work can make a person more flustered and incapable of paying attention. In the words of Iiro Jääskeläinen, an associate professor at Aalto University in Greater Helsinki, Finland, “prolonged stress hinders thinking and memory.” In the end, it may be more wise to simply work at one task at a time rather than attempting to bite off more than one can chew.

Edited by: Naomi D’Arbell, Ruby Halfacre, and Shreya Singireddy