The Britannica Blog has been running a forum on multitasking this week, including posts from Maggie Jackson, Howard Rheingold, and Heather Gold. My own small contribution to the discussion appears today and is reprinted below:

Thank God for multitasking. Can you imagine how dull life would be if we humans lacked the ability to rapidly and seamlessly shift our focus from one task or topic to another? We wouldn’t be able to listen to the radio while driving, have conversations while cooking, juggle assignments at work, or even chew gum while walking. The world would grind to a depressing halt.

The ability to multitask is one of the essential strengths of our infinitely amazing brains. We wouldn’t want to lose it. But as neurobiologists and psychologists have shown, and as Maggie Jackson has carefully documented, we pay a price when we multitask. Because the depth of our attention governs the depth of our thought and our memory, when we multitask we sacrifice understanding and learning. We do more but know less. And the more tasks we juggle and the more quickly we switch between them, the higher the cognitive price we pay.

The problem today is not that we multitask. We’ve always multitasked. The problem is that we never stop multitasking. The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts, bombard us with other bits of important and trivial information, and generally interrupt the train of our thought. The data barrage never lets up. As a result, we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture—the modes of thinking that involve concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection. The less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.

There’s evidence that, as Howard Rheingold suggests, we can train ourselves to be better multitaskers, to shift our attention even more swiftly and fluidly among contending chores and stimuli. And that will surely help us navigate the fast-moving stream of modern life. But improving our ability to multitask, neuroscience tells us in no uncertain terms, will never return to us the depth of understanding that comes with attentive, singleminded thought. You can improve your agility at multitasking, but you will never be able to multitask and engage in deep thought at the same time.

15 thoughts on “Hypermultitasking

  1. KiltBear

    The problem is at 45 I can’t nearly multitask as well as I did when I was 25. Either that, or I’ve become more critically honest regarding the quality of the output of my multitasking.

  2. aimee whitcroft

    I’m still in the my twenties, and a fairly practised multitasker. The problem is that I’ve begun to really notice the cost that it’s having cognitively – I often find myself doing two things, but only actually comprehending one (maximum), and sometimes not even that one properly.

    Scarily, it also appears to be highly addictive – sort of like acquired attention deficit disorder, making it quite difficult to focus on one thing, even when it’s necessary/there’s time to do so. Of course, the brain being as plastic as it is, there’s always the ability to retrain it back, or else to find a way to walk the very thin line between the two modes of thought (I’m trying, but it takes a bit of practice).

    Knowing that it is actually a cognitive effect (rather than just, say, one’s brain failing) is certainly a comfort :)

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Let me put it this way: I strongly suspect that the jobs or activities highly involved in multitasking are precisely those which are the opposite of deep thought.

    Daily management or social media are not very contemplative roles.

    As a general comment, in the forum, I see a sort of techno-gloss on the chestnut of “Modern life is so hectic and demanding! We don’t have enough quiet time.”. Which I suppose is a valid point, but not made any more exciting to me (or insightful) by making it a technology/neurology matter (granted, that probably appeals the target audience).

  4. Andrey Kuzmin

    It looks amusing to confront our ability to multi-task with that of modern computer architectures, where multi-tasking efficiency is primarily defined by memory access pattern.

  5. Cynthia Rettig

    Interesting post. Neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg explores a key aspect of the pitfalls of multitasking in “The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory” (NY: Oxford, 2009) Essentially we can only keep approximately 7 items in our working memory at any given time and it is working memory that sustains attention. The more complex the thinking being done, the less likely that you can successfully multitask. At the other end of the spectrum, you can walk and chew gum at the same time and even talk to a friend, because walking and chewing gum are largely automatic and do not strain working memory. See my review at http://www.digitalathena.com/cro-magnon-brain-in-the-information-age.html .

  6. Linuxguru1968

    Seth Finkelstein:

    I often wonder just which mission critical jobs in modern society are really dependent on “multitasking”. Could the alleged “overload” be largely self afflicted on content generators rather than a hazard for legitimate knowlege workers? The truth is that “knowlege jobs” – jobs that require a human to make a decision are disappearing at a rapid pace. After the savings from outsourcing are gone, they will be automated and disappear entirely. I hesitate to pimp another generator content on Fearless Leader blog, but interested reader might check put Dan Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind”. He sees a complete shift from left brain(analytical) jobs to right brain(creative) jobs. I guess in a country with unemployment approaching 17%; we are not going to have much of a choice-multitasking overload or not!

  7. Gary Frost

    Have you noticed that particularly focused manual activity will silence your conversation with others and even cause involuntary clenching of the tongue? This suggests multitasking between simultaneous activities has a deeply embedded supervision.

    Such evolutionary supervision could extend to all kinds of multitasking. While driving and phoning with the radio on, we may actually be toggling between these sources, momentarily attentive to only one. The toggling itself is the real multitasking. Many on-line activities individually also exercise this toggling. A keyword search or an email list or blog thread involves as much deletion and decisive disregard as selective attention. This management of attention may be advancing as a skill of multitasking while efficiencies of comprehension diminish.

  8. grizzly marmot

    That is a potentially dangerous crowd that you are hanging with. They are coming very close to stating that there are two ways of thinking – the Right way and the Wrong way.

  9. dmr

    The environment we live in continues to change, and we must adapt with it.

    At one time in our evolution, we were not necessarily at the top of the food chain. Predators of some kind may have exploited us as a prey species.

    We, as individuals, are not at the top of the food chain today. We remain a prey species to larger social organisms, chiefly corporations, who compete with one another to consume our attention and our authority (chiefly in the form of money).

    As individuals, we must learn to adapt to this new environment to protect ourselves from these new predators. We must develop the skills to discriminate between the things that compete for our attention and our authority. And we must do so in an environment wherein the topmost niche is held by adaptive, learning organisms which recognize that it is to their competitive advantage to prevent us from doing so.

    Just because individuals are members of larger social organisms does not mean that they necessarily benefit from the competitive actions of the organism. To some extent, they do. But in terms of achieving what may be considered a desired quality of life, it is very much an open question to me whether or not membership facilitates or impedes that goal. In my opinion, it impedes it significantly. And the burden is on the individual, as it has always been, to discover how best to live in this environment and try to achieve their best quality of life.

    This comment itself works, to some extent, against that goal for me, as the time I’ve devoted to reading this piece and responding to it is lost to me for whatever other potential uses it may have had. (A few more quiet moments with my dog.) But I offer it here because I feel these debates have so often utterly missed the point. Though I now realize that my own happiness lies somewhere outside the competition for “the point.”

    Have a nice day.

  10. Larry Port

    Hi Nick:

    Great post and thanks so much for all of your writing this year, really enjoy it.

    I wonder if the scattering of attention has an effect on personal happiness. One of the most interesting books I read on the subject was Flow by Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I had to Google that to make sure I spelled it correctly). Basically, the central idea is the satisfaction people feel from engaging deeply in activities. Personally, as anectodal evidence, I notice that I feel more satisfaction at the end of days when I’m completely immersed in activities, whether work, sports, or with the kids, than when actively multi-tasking.

  11. Luis Alberola

    Hello Nick,

    I find it interesting when you say : “when we multitask we sacrifice understanding and learning” and finish by saying that we cannot engage in deep thinking and multi-tasking at the same time.

    I agree, and I even say that you are just describing reality. The real world. Few of us really engage in deep thinking at any time. You could even argue that deep thinking was needed when conversation was not enough to solve problems (probably because there were less people to talk to).

    And try thinking about it in terms of efficiency (for civilisation). Multi-tasking (and, today, multi-tasking is often equated to transmitting information) is much more efficient than deep thinking.

    Bold idea: wouldn’t deep thinking be something prone to disappear ? Like today we understand that we have lost some “suprasensorial” skills that our ancestor had, or just the precision of their sight.

    Those things (hearing, watching, …, thinking) are less important in a technological society. I’ve written about that here : http://luisalberolasblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/do-bots-dream-of-electronic.html

    Nice post anyhow !


  12. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=43701028


    Thanks for yet another interesting blog post. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading many of them!

    Perhaps John Naisbitt was more prescient than he might have imagined when he wrote “Megatrends”. The very idea of hyper-multitasking, where the breadth of stimulation prohibits the time for deep thought, echoes Naisbitt’s 1982 quote “We are drowning in information, yet starved for knowledge.”

    This meme seems to repeat itself as new technologies become interwoven into the fabric of society.

    I wonder if there is any hard data supporting a correlation between communication efficiency and productivity, and in another vein – if the velocity of modern communication has possibly impacted creativity in some negative way as efficiency doesn’t necessarily equate efficacy. If there are such studies you are aware of please point them out for us.

    I’m certain that societies that have embraced technology have benefited in numerous ways – however you have raised some interesting points in your about the detrimental aspects of information overload. I look forward to reading your new book on the subject.


  13. Jon

    We all get better at multi-tasking, mainly though practice as we are continually inundated with things to do. That said we sometimes make choices to multi-task more, which to me smacks a bit of arrogance and over-confidence. If you are on a conference call, then be on the conference call. Don’t look at the internet and check the stock prices. My teams and I sometimes declare “instant messaging” off when we really need the to focus on the subject at hand. We all need to better at multi-tasking – but at the right time.

  14. Matt Hunckler

    Do we really want to increase our ability to multitask?

    I’m more productive when I simply focus my time on only the tasks that create the most value and can’t be sufficiently carried out by someone else.

    While I can manage a lot of things at once, I feel that trying to do all of these things simultaneously only limits the tremendous potential of a mind that’s free of minutiae and mundane tasks.

    Has anyone else experienced anything like this?

  15. Tyroneshum

    I can say it’s true. The more we multi task, the more we get to use all our different senses at the same time which makes our brain to even function in which I can say, segment by segment in the way we focus on one activity to another that’s why it allows us to lack the “deep thinking”. On the brighter side, this multitasking capability of humans especially while in the modern employment has developed this productivity in work because we can actually spend that whole duty finishing a whole lot of tasks in less time and not making us idle for even few minutes. The more we multitask, the more we finish deadlines.

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