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Recently, many states have begun passing laws about not texting and driving at the same.  The rise in traffic fatalities due to the distraction caused by attempting to text and drive at the same time has been cited as the rationale.  Scientific evidence is growing to support the notion that whatever we might think otherwise, human beings are really not that good at multitasking.

New studies by Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Paris demonstrates that the human brain can keep track of two task more or less simultaneously, if there are sufficient rewards associated with each task.  His research shows that the area of the brain that was highly active in the observed multitasking behavior, the frontopolar cortex (which organizes pending goals while the brain completes another task), is well developed in humans.  However, the work also shows that while the human brain can track two tasks at once, it generally cannot handle more than two tasks, and the actual performance of each task isn’t necessarily efficient.

Many wired aficionados take great pride in their ability to multitask in an effort to stay ahead of increasingly hectic schedules and heavy workloads.  But, as ComputerWorld blogger Jim Taylor notes, neuroscience has discovered a catch to all this simultaneous activity.  In order to effectively do two tasks at the same time:

  • At least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning virtually no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task
  • The tasks involve different types of brain processing

Research findings by the American Psychological Association have demonstrated that when you shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. There is a lag time during which your brain must free itself from the initial task and then fix onto the new task. This shift, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single tasking – especially for complex tasks.  So there is a large efficiency penalty incurred by multitasking.

Multitasking: Fact Or Fallacy
A humorous look at multitasking

All these new discoveries aren’t likely to make us give us iPhones and other engines of multitasking anytime soon.  But we may to consider that serial tasking – being present in the current task at hand – may make us more productive as well as less stressed.