Don't believe the multitasking hype,
scientists say. New research shows that we humans aren't as good as we think we are at doing several things at once.
But it also highlights a human skill that gave us an evolutionary edge.
As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time,
the myth that we can multi-task has never been stronger.
But researchers say it's still a myth - and
they have the data to prove it.
Humans, they say,
don't do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.
A case example, researchers say, is a group of people who focus not on a BlackBerry but on a blueberry - as in pancakes.
Diner Cook: A Task Master
To make it as a short-order cook, you must be able to keep a half-dozen orders in your head while cracking eggs, flipping pancakes, working the counter, and refilling coffee cups.
And at a restaurant like the Tastee Diner, in Bethesda, Md., the orders come in verbally, not on a ticket.
Chocolate chip pancakes, scrambled with sausage, order of french fries, rye toast - they're small tasks. On a busy day, though, they add up to a tough job for Shawn Swinson.
"My first month here, I was ready to walk out the door," he said.
Asked what it feels like when he's in the middle of rush hour, Swinson said, "Like you're in an insane asylum. It's almost unbearable."
Swinson has learned to handle the pressure. He's an island of calm, even when the orders are flying. But Swinson's boss, manager Frank Long, says very few people can keep up without losing their cool.
"It's singularly the most difficult job in this type of operation," Long said. "Four cooks. Five waitresses. Bus staff. Host. Getting them in and out."
Speed and accuracy are at a premium - especially when the customers are multitasking, too. Lunchtime is the worst, Long said.
"People may have an errand to run. Maybe go to the bank and pick up dry cleaning, and eat. All within an hour, whatever time they have."
It's all part of life these days. We
answer e-mails while yapping on the phone. We schedule appointments while driving and listening to the radio. And it seems as if we're focusing on all these tasks simultaneously,
as if we've become true masters of doing 10 things at once.
But, brain researchers say, that's not really the case.
Multitasking: A Human Delusion?
"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves,"
said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."
Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time.
What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.
"Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Miller said.
"You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly."
Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.
"Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time," he said.
"You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks," Miller said. "They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them."
Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they're trying to figure out the details of what's going on.
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