How our brain responds to multitasking

What Is Multitasking? Multitasking refers to performing several tasks at a time or in other words, switching back and forth from one task to another. If we are involved in two or more tasks at once, we can call ourselves as a multitasker. Sometimes our job demands multitasking under pressure to complete work in a predefined time schedule.

Take a moment and think, are you multitasking right now? Along with reading this write-up, perhaps you are engaged in other activities such as talking to your friends, checking emails, browsing on your computer, writing any article, listening to music, or eating.

Numerous research studies have been conducted to understand the effect of multitasking on brain damage, memory, productivity etc. While multitasking we are bombarded with too much information at a time, so it weakens the power of our brain to process information in an effective way. Studies from Wanger’s lab on media multitasking and memory reported that heavy multitasking lowers the working memory (ability to hold information temporarily), long-term memory and also affects the attentional scope. Researchers carried out number of tests to check the working memory ability in heavy media multitasker and they found that, the performance of heavy media multitasker is worse compared to light media multitasker. Many of the studies reported a negative relationship between media multitasking and working memory, it is because of lack of attention while doing several works at a time. In another study by Joshua Rubinstein, observed that switching between multiple tasks resulted in the significant loss of time.

However, there are studies which report no performance difference between multitasker and other group who are not engaged in multitasking. Of course, it’s very hard to say whether multitasking is good or bad. So, more evident studies are required to understand the effect of multitasking.

Now let’s delve into how our brain manages multitasking. As we all know, the information that we are getting from the outside world is processed, interpreted and stored by our brain. Like any other activity, proper processing of all information that we are exposed to each and every minute into a meaningful form is necessary.

Stages of information processing

Several theories have been proposed regarding the information processing stages. Generally, the information processing consists of three key stages such as input, storage and output. In the input stage external stimuli reaches the brain through various sense organs and it undergoes preliminary evaluation. In the second stage, the information is stored as short-term or long-term memory depending upon our focus. There is a chance to forget the information if it is not reinforced. The last stage is output, in this stage brain give instructions to respond to the stimuli on the basis of stored information.

Posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) is the part of cerebral cortex and is responsible for routing the information input to corresponding centers for processing and storage. This region plays an important role when we are multitasking. During simultaneous arrival of information, pLPFC keeps them in a queue rather than sending them for processing and storage.  If it continues to happen, pLPFC queues two of them for processing and ignores the rest. This ignored information slip past to the striatum. Which is a part of subcortical basal ganglia and plays a pivotal role in the sequential representation of actions. As this information are not processed and stored, we fail to recall it later.

Multitasking it seems is like a better way to finish all our work at once, but research has shown that it can actually reduce the productivity. So, to avoid this it’s better to reduce the simultaneous work burden to our brain by prioritising our work and allocating enough time in between each task.

Written by: Akhina P., UGC-JRF, Yenepoya Research Centre, Yenepoya (Deemed to be University), Mangalore-575018, Karnataka, India.

Artwork: Akhina P.

Edited by: Saketh Kapoor

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