Debunking brain myths: Does multi-tasking work?

With all of the latest gadgets at our fingertips, who isn’t tempted to respond to emails while finishing up a project or, even worse, return a phone call while driving?

There may be some things that we can do well while multi-tasking, but in most situations, quality will suffer and the tasks will usually take longer to accomplish. Surprisingly, this is even true for young adults.

A recent study of college students in California looked at “high-media” (electronic) multi-taskers who are used to doing several things at the same time. The researchers examined whether these students are better at filtering out the less important tasks or information.

“The study showed that the students, despite all of their experience in multi-tasking, were not good at focusing on the important task at hand. In fact, their ability to inhibit the secondary tasks was weak,” says Dr. Cheryl Grady, senior scientist at Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest.

This means that regardless of age, if you are doing a secondary task while learning new information, it negatively affects the learning. As we age, this becomes even more difficult because our ability to filter out irrelevant information declines, she explains.

Driving is a good example because it relies on a lot of thinking and different brain systems. Studies have shown that when we get distracted, accident rates increase.

Distractions can take a number of forms:

— Internal distractions occur when our thoughts wander from the task at hand.

— Television, email or cell phones are examples of environmental distractions.

According to Dr. Grady, “For some reason, as we get older, these distractions become harder to turn off. I recommend that if you are working on an item of high priority, try to stay focused. Turn off the cell phone or email; and every now and then stop and ask yourself, am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? This can help you stay on track.”

What happens in our brain when we multi-task?

“There is some evidence that our brain is rapidly switching from one task to another,” says Dr. Grady. “This appears to interfere with our ability to properly encode the information. That’s why if you’re distracted while driving, you may not remember later where you parked the car.”

Also, this might explain why it usually takes longer to accomplish each task when you are doing more than one thing at a time. Your brain has to refocus each time you switch tasks.


A study of employees at Microsoft found that every time they responded to an email or text, it took them 15 minutes to return to the work they were doing.

On the positive side, retrieving information that you already know while multi-tasking, or performing a couple of routine tasks that don’t take a lot of thought, may be possible, for example talking on the phone while folding laundry. But even in these cases, the primary task will be disrupted to some degree.

Photo © Catherine Yeulet

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