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60-Second Science

The Myth of Multitasking

A study in the journal Neuron shows that when we think we're getting better at multitasking, we're really getting faster at switching back and forth between two different things at different times. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Modern humans are masters of multitasking. We eat while driving, watch TV while studying, and of course talk on our cell phones while doing, well, everything. How do we do it? A study in the July 16th issue of Neuron suggests that though we can train our brains to work faster as we juggle, we never actually manage to do more than one thing at a time.

Our brains aren’t really built to handle the sort of parallel processing we think we’re capable of. The good news is: studies have shown that extensive training can make us better at doing two things at once. But how?

One theory is that with lots of practice some routines become “automatic.” And if we don’t need to run every little thing past the part of the brain that’s spends time thinking about stuff, we can multitask just fine.

But this new study finds that that’s not the way it works. Turns out that multitaskers still consult the prefrontal cortex, but training gets the “Thinking Brain” to think a little faster. So we’re switching tasks quickly enough to appear to be doing them simultaneously. Which is still nothing to shake a stick and sneeze at.

—Karen Hopkin

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