I really get offended during meetings when I see people behind their laptop working at their presentation or checking their mails. I find it rude beyond measure, as this is basically saying “Talk to the computer, because the head ain’t listening…” And if you’re one of them, I know what you’re going to say: “Oh, but I was listening, I’m great at multitasking”. The thing is, many of us truly believe we are experts at it, but newsflash: unless you have some rare genetic mutation that makes you the only human being ‘great’ at multitasking, you’re most definitely not.

Most of us have come to accept that it is actually an efficient way of getting our work done. Unfortunately, there is some bad news. There is no such thing as multitasking – yes, you read that right. Multitasking is one of the most pernicious myths of the digital age. Whenever we do two or more things at the same time, not only do we take more time than if we would’ve handled them one after another, we also make much more errors. The reason for this is simple. It is not possible for our brains to do two cognitive tasks simultaneously in an efficient manner. The moment it has to do three things at once, it becomes almost impossible. The prefrontal cortex of our brain delegates task-management. Our brain’s anterior part forms the intention or the goal – for instance, “I want to read my mails” – and the posterior part (prefrontal cortex) communicates with the rest of the brain so that we go to our inbox and start reading. The moment you have another goal enter into the mix, like listening to a presentation or a conversation, the equation changes completely.

Don’t juggle, it’s just a struggle

To investigate this matter, researchers at INSERM, Paris used fMRI studies to measure the changes in neurological activity. A group of men and women were given a letter-matching test. The volunteers were presented with random letters from the word “tablet” and they had to figure out whether successive letters (all uppercase or all lowercase) presented in the same order as they did in the word. They were promised a cash prize if they perform well. As expected, the participants performed well when they dealt exclusively with uppercase or lowercase letters. Both sides of their brain were activated and the chain of command from the anterior to the posterior proceeded as it should, to get the job done.

However, the moment they were given a mix of both uppercase and lowercase letters and asked to match the letters with the corresponding case-sensitive words, their brains split up the labor – the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex took over one task each and predictably enough, they both ended up pursuing their own goal and reward. The case was compounded when another set of participants were asked to color-match the letters while simultaneously matching case sensitive letters. The people who juggled three tasks frequently forgot one of the tasks and their error rate tripled when compared to dual-tasking. In other words, you can probably talk and cook at the same time, but the moment you decide to add another activity to the list, the prefrontal cortex will end up discarding one of them.

There are other ways our brain is impacted by multitasking. For instance, when we study and message at the same time, the stuff we read goes to the striatum, a region of the brain that stores new skills and procedures, rather than ideas and facts. In the absence of any distraction, the information goes straight to the hippocampus and catalogued in a number of ways, thereby making it much easier to retrieve it.

We need to keep in mind that our hunter-gatherer ancestors never had to process many things at the same time. We invented the wheel thousands of years after we discovered fire. However, in this day and age, we wake up to a new cell phone UI almost every week. Although our brains have come a long way from prehistoric times, the fact remains that it is not possible for us to effectively do more than two things at once without significant cognitive impairment.

So, if you are planning to do some texting whilst I talk to you, don’t act surprised if I won’t finish my sentence. Because if you won’t be listening, I won’t be interested in talking.