Human multitasking
Human multitasking is the best performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking
Computer multitasking
In computing, multitasking is a method where multiple tasks, also known as processes, share common processing resources such as a CPU. In the case of a computer with a single CPU, only one task is said to be running at any point in time, meaning that the CPU is actively executing instructions for...

. An example of multitasking is taking phone calls while typing an email. Some believe that multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention
Attention is the cognitive process of paying attention to one aspect of the environment while ignoring others. Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience....



The term "multitasking" originated in the computer engineering industry It was used to refer the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously. Computer multitasking
Computer multitasking
In computing, multitasking is a method where multiple tasks, also known as processes, share common processing resources such as a CPU. In the case of a computer with a single CPU, only one task is said to be running at any point in time, meaning that the CPU is actively executing instructions for...

 in single core microprocessors actually involves time-sharing the processor; only one task can actually be active at a time, but tasks are rotated through many times a second. With multi-core computers, each core can perform a separate task simultaneously.

Research on human multitasking

Since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have started experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. It has been shown multitasking is not as workable as concentrated times. In general, these studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action (e.g., ). Many researchers believe that action planning represents a "bottleneck", which the human brain can only perform one task at a time. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell
Edward Hallowell (psychiatrist)
Edward M. Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist who specialises in ADD/ADHD and who also has ADD. He is the co-author of the books Driven to Distraction and Delivered From Distraction .-Biography:...

 has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”

Others have researched multitasking in specific domains, such as learning. Mayer and Moreno have studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning extensively and have concluded that it is difficult, and possibly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking. Junco and Cotten examined how multitasking affects academic success and found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work.

The brain's role in multitasking

Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer—often double the time or more—to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” states Meyer  . This is largely because “the brain is compelled to restart and refocus”  . A study by Meyer and David Kieras found that in the interim between each exchange, the brain makes no progress whatsoever. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.

When presented with much information, the brain is forced to pause and refocus continuously as one switches between tasks  . Realistically, this is “a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing.” According to a study done by Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “the most anterior part [of the brain] allows [a person] to leave something when it’s incomplete and return to the same place and continue from there,” while Broadman’s Area 10, a part of the brain’s frontal lobes, is important for establishing and attaining long term goals  . Focusing on multiple dissimilar tasks at once forces the brain to process all activity in its anterior. Though the brain is complex and can perform a myriad of tasks, it cannot multitask well.

Another study by René Marois, a psychologist of Vanderbilt University, discovered that the brain exhibits a “response selection bottleneck” when asked to perform several tasks at once. The brain must then decide which activity is most important, thereby taking more time. Psychologist David Meyer of the University of Michigan claims that, instead of a “bottleneck,” the brain experiences “adaptive executive control” which places priorities on each activity. These viewpoints differ in that, while bottlenecking attempts to force many thoughts through the brain at once, adaptive executive control prioritizes tasks to maintain resemblance of order. The brain better understands this order and, as psychologists such as Dr. Meyer believe, can therefore be trained to multitask  . Because the brain is an expanse of yet uncharted territory, psychologists do not understand how the brain truly processes input and reacts to overstimulation.

Some research suggests that the human brain can be trained to multitask. A study published in Child Development by Monica Luciana, associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, discovered that the brain’s capability of categorizing competing information continues to develop until ages sixteen and seventeen. Perhaps if people are trained to multitask at an early age, they will become efficient at multitasking. A study by Vanderbilt University found that multitasking is largely limited by “the speed with which our prefrontal cortex processes information.” Paul E. Dux, co-author of the study, believes that this process can become faster through proper training. The research team found that with training, the brain can think and perform certain tasks more quickly, effectively allowing time for another task. The study trained seven people to perform two simple tasks, either separately or together, and conducted brain scans of the participants. The individuals multitasked poorly at first but, with training, were able to adeptly perform the tasks simultaneously. Brain scans of the participants indicate that the prefrontal cortex quickened its ability to process the information, enabling the individuals to multitask more efficiently. However, the study also suggests that the brain is incapable of performing multiple tasks at one time, even after extensive training  . This study further indicates that, while the brain can become adept at processing and responding to certain information, it cannot truly multitask.

People have a limited ability to retain information, which worsens when the amount of information increases. For this reason people alter information to make it more memorable, such as separating a ten-digit phone number into three smaller groups or dividing the alphabet into sets of three to five letters. George Miller, former psychologist at Harvard University, believes the limits to the human brain’s capacity centers around “the number seven, plus or minus two.” An illustrative example of this is a test in which a person must repeat numbers read aloud. While two or three numbers are easily repeated, shown in the beginning straight line, fifteen numbers becomes more difficult, as the line curves. The person would, on average, repeat seven correctly  .
Brains are only capable of storing a limited amount of information in their short term memories.

This ineffectiveness of the human brain for multitasking has been demonstrated in different studies.

Laboratory based studies of multi-tasking indicate that one motivation for switching between tasks is to increase the time spent on the task that produces the most reward (Payne, Duggan & Neth, 2007). This reward could be progress towards an overall task goal or it could simply be the opportunity to pursue a more interesting or fun activity. Payne, Duggan and Neth (2007) found that decisions to switch task reflected either the reward provided by the current task or the availability of a suitable opportunity to switch (i.e. the completion of a subgoal). A French fMRI
Functional magnetic resonance imaging
Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI is a type of specialized MRI scan used to measure the hemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans or other animals. It is one of the most recently developed forms of neuroimaging...

 study published in 2010 indicated preliminary support for the hypothesis that the brain can pursue at most two goals simultaneously, one for each frontal lobe (which has a goal-oriented area).

Continuous partial attention

Author Steven Berlin Johnson
Steven Berlin Johnson
Steven Berlin Johnson is an American popular science author.-Education:Steven Johnson attended the prestigious St. Albans School as a youth. He completed his undergraduate degree at Brown University, where he studied semiotics, a part of Brown's modern culture and media department...

 describes one kind of multitasking: “It usually involves skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish." Multimedia pioneer Linda Stone
Linda Stone
Linda Stone is a writer and consultant who coined the phrase "continuous partial attention" in 1998. Stone also coined "email apnea" in 2008 which means "a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email."...

 coined the phrase "continuous partial attention
Continuous Partial Attention
Continuous partial attention is the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information, but at a superficial level. The term was coined by Linda Stone in 1998...

" for this kind of processing. Continuous partial attention is multitasking where things do not get studied in depth.

In the ever converging computer and human world of technology we are all multitasking at rates that are significantly higher than previous generations. In the workplace some people have 15–20 different websites open simultaneously and toggle between the various windows while maintaining very high level of productivity.

Rapidly increasing technology fosters multitasking because it promotes multiple sources of input at a given time. Instead of exchanging old equipment like TV, print, and music, for new equipment such as computers, the Internet, and video games children and teens combine forms of media and continually increase sources of input  . According to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 1999 only 16 percent of time spent using media such as internet, television, video games, telephones, text-messaging, or e-mail was combined. In 2005, 26 percent of the time this media was used together  . This increase in media usage decreases the amount of attention paid to each device. Today 82 percent of youth use the Internet by the seventh grade, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. A 2005 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, while their usage of media continued at a constant 6.5 hours per day, Americans ages 8 to 18 were crowding roughly 8.5 hours’ worth of media into their days due to multitasking. The survey showed that one quarter to one third of the participants have more than one input “most of the time” while watching television, listening to music, or reading  . The 2007 Harvard Business Review featured Linda Stone’s idea of “continuous partial attention,” or, “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing”   As technology provides more distractions, attention is spread among tasks more thinly.

A prevalent example of this inattention to detail due to multitasking is apparent when people talk on cell phones while driving. Talking and driving are mutually exclusive because focusing on both the conversation and the road uses the same part of the brain . As a result, people generally become more concerned with their phone conversations and do not concentrate on their immediate surroundings. A 2006 study published in the Human Factors journal showed that drivers talking on cell phones were more involved in rear-end collisions and sped up slower than drivers intoxicated over the .08% legal limit. When talking, people must withdraw their attention from the road in order to formulate responses. Because the brain cannot focus on two sources of input at one time, driving and listening or talking, constantly changing input provided by cell phones distracts the brain and increases the likelihood of accidents.

Social consequences

Because society endorses constant multitasking, such as listening to music while exercising, physical social interaction is negatively affected. Already, youth commonly text and listen to music while having a “conversation”. Though they may be talented at switching their attention rapidly between their favorite song, phone, and a friend’s response, they are physically incapable of focusing on both in the same moment; thus, the friend is neglected. Because an important part of a message is communicated through body language and tone of voice, a person who texts while conversing will miss a great part of what the other says. The texting person will also convey the message that they are uninterested in the conversation. A person can feel excluded when talking to someone who whips out a cell phone to text in the midst of conversation. This portrays that the texting person does not care for what the other thinks because they do not maintain eye contact or pay complete attention to the conversation. Through electronic communication, body language and expression are lost altogether. “Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication… that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and create bonds”  . This long-term accomplishment is easily discarded when people turn to the quick, easy methods of communicating through technology.

Popular commentary on practical multitasking

Multitasking has been criticized as a hindrance to completing tasks or feeling happiness. Barry Schwartz has noted that, given the media-rich landscape of the Internet era, it is tempting to get into a habit of dwelling in a constant sea of information with too many choices, which has been noted to have a negative effect on human happiness.

The idea that women are better multitaskers than men has been popular in the media. Recently, a study by British psychologist Professor Keith Laws at the University of Hertfordshire
University of Hertfordshire
The University of Hertfordshire is a new university based largely in Hatfield, in the county of Hertfordshire, England, from which the university takes its name. It has more than 27,500 students, over 2500 staff, with a turnover of over £181m...

 was widely reported in the press to have provided the first evidence of female multitasking superiority. A formal research paper has yet to be published.

In another study, females were found to perform better at coordinating a primary test with a secondary test (p=0.007), supporting this notion that females are better at multi-tasking. However, the authors concluded their tests may not reflect real life multi-tasking and that further research was required.

Observers of youth in modern society often comment upon the apparently advanced multitasking capabilities of the youngest generations of humans (Generation Y
Generation Y
Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation , Generation Next, Net Generation, or Echo Boomers, describes the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when the Millennial generation starts and ends, and commentators have used birth dates ranging somewhere...

 and Generation Z
Generation Z
Generation Z is a common name in the US and other Western nations for the group of people born from the early 1990s through to the present....

). While it is true that contemporary researchers find that youths in today's world exhibit high levels of multitasking, most experts believe that members of the Net Generation are not any better at multitasking than members of older generations.

See also

  • Absent-mindedness
    Absent-mindedness is where a person shows inattentive or forgetful behaviour. It can have three different causes:# a low level of attention...

  • Attention management
    Attention management
    Attention management refers to models and tools for supporting the management of attention at the individual or at the collective level , and at the short-term or at a longer term ....

  • Human reliability
    Human reliability
    Human reliability is related to the field of human factors engineering and ergonomics, and refers to the reliability of humans in fields such as manufacturing, transportation, the military, or medicine...

  • Media multitasking
    Media multitasking
    For other uses, see multitasking Media multitasking involves using TV, the Web, radio, telephone, print, or any other media in conjunction with another...

  • Multi-boxing
    Multiboxing is a term used mostly in MMORPGs to refer to playing as multiple separate characters simultaneously. This can either be achieved by using multiple separate machines to run the game or by running multiple separate instances of the game....

  • Pareto principle
    Pareto principle
    The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.Business-management consultant Joseph M...

  • Parkinson's Law
    Parkinson's law
    Parkinson's law is the adage first articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955:...

  • Time management
    Time management
    Time management is the act or process of exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase efficiency or productivity. Time management may be aided by a range of skills, tools, and techniques used to manage time when accomplishing specific...

External links

Further reading

  • Multitaskers bad at multitasking – BBC News Monday, 24 August 2009
  • – The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning?
  • Ferriss, Timothy. The 4-hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. New York: Crown, 2007. Print.
  • Miller, George A. "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." Psychological Review 101.2 (1994): 1–17. Print.
  • Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. "A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver." Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91. Print.
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