How it works: multitasking

Madeline Bombardi

You’re listening to a friend, reading an email and thinking about what you need to text your mom regarding Thanksgiving plans. Multitasking — we are all culprits of it and we all think we are masters of it.

While you are consuming information from three places at once, have you ever thought, “How is my brain able to do this?”

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The human brain is controlling many voluntary and involuntary actions at any given moment. It receives a wealth of information and processes it within a fraction of a second. This is incredibly fast, especially for an organ that is constantly working and multitasking. But, as we add more tasks, our brains become overloaded with processing responsibilities.

As humans, we often overestimate our ability to simultaneously complete projects and tasks,” said Hayley Thompson, a graduate student in journalism and communication technology.

However, Thompson said she turns on music or television as background noise while she studies. Her primary focus is on the homework, and she does not recall what song she was listening to or what television show was playing.

One thing will take priority and demand the cognitive resources, while the other tasks are pushed to the back. … Simultaneously working on more than one to two tasks is not efficient and will decrease the quality of each product.”

Summer Allen, a writer for BrainFacts.org, echoed this point, arguing that multitasking actually reduces speed and increases mistakes in production and comprehension. When the brain is juggling multiple cognitive tasks, it is not processing them simultaneously, but rather, our brains are switching back and forth between cognitive engagements.

The front portion of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, plays a key role in focusing our attention and communicating messages to other regions of the brain.

When we focus on a single task, such as reading, the right and left side of the prefrontal cortex work together for maximum attention and retention.

When we focus on two tasks, such as reading and listening to a friend, each side operates independently. If we focus on three or more tasks, such as reading, listening to a friend and operating a vehicle, two of the tasks now compete for attention from the left or right hemisphere. One of the hemispheres switches its focus between the two tasks within a matter of seconds.

Neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin said, “(We) might be in great trouble when we try to juggle more than two tasks simply because we have only two frontal lobes.”

It should be noted that the amount of attention needed to operate a task depends on the task itself. For example, it may be easier to walk and eat lunch as opposed to eating lunch and operating a vehicle. More natural activities, such as walking, do not occupy much prefrontal cortex attention or energy.

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The next time you begin three tasks at once, it may be best to reconsider and complete one task at a time.

Collegian Reporter Maddy Bombardi can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @madelinebombard.