Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that humans can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it's still a myth — and they have the data to prove it. Jon Hamilton, NPR science correspondent, explains.

Bad At Multitasking? Blame Your Brain

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This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment. Multi-tasking is a part of modern life. Every job requires it. Whether you're a waitress taking orders, serving the food, getting the check ready or a talk show host, listening to guests, taking phone calls, reading emails and IM-ing with the producer. The assumption is you can and do multi-task. In fact, whether a work or not, a lot of you are probably doing more than one thing right now. Maybe talking on your cell phone or having a bite to eat while driving to your next stop. But just because it's a fact of life doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing. And the research is starting to pile up. We are really wired to do one thing at a time. Later in the hour, saying no to teens in a tight economy as Amy's - Amy Dickensen will join us. But first, do you multitask? Does it work for you? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is and you can also comment on our blog. It's on And joining us now in studio 3A is NPR's Science correspondent John Hamilton. You may have heard this series on multi-tasking from Morning Edition, the forth and final installment of the series will air on October 30th. John, it's so good to have you with us.

Mr. JON HAMILTON: Good to be here.

NEARY: And John, we are going to start with a question or a call from a listener. We're going to go first to Sheila, she's in Arizona. Hi, Sheila.

SHEILA (caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

SHEILA: Well, I stopped when this talk came up. It's just grabbed my attention immediately because I feel as if my life is multi-tasking from the minute I wake up until the minute I go to bed sometimes. I have two kids, they are two and four, and run a small wealth management firm. And I don't think that I could really think of a time in my day when I'm not doing at least two things. Even when I go the bathroom, I'm catching up on the paper.

NEARY: Do you feel like you're doing them all well? How do you feel about that?

SHEILA: The part I feel like I may suffer is with my children when I'm trying to either, you know, for instance last night, tried do an activity workbook with my son while I'm also trying to listen to the debate. I feel like he's not getting my full attention and I'm not paying attention to the debate fully. But I 'm getting a little bit of both worlds. I would have had to sacrifice one or the other.

NEARY: All right. And, and - but you don't see this changing anyway. You're going to keep on having to multi task, right?

SHEILA: Well, we just don't, I don't think that we have enough time in the day. Most of us, to do everything that needs to be done. So in order to meet a - I think perform at my best level, I have to try to find ways to fit more in. Whether that's emailing someone while I'm on hold or returning my calls when I'm driving home from work so that I don't have to be on the phone when I'm with my kids or. You know, put - doing two things at once has just kind of become my life. But I have to say it's very exhausting and I'm interested to hear how it may be affecting me in ways that I don't even realize besides the exhaustion I feel at the end of the day.

NEARY: All right. Stay tuned, Sheila. Because we're going to tell you.

SHEILA: Thank you.

(Sound bite of laughter)

NEARY: And thanks for your call. So John Hamilton, there we have it. That sounds like modern living. People struggling to get everything done in one day. They have to multi task. What's wrong with that?

HAMILTON: Well, I may - I think Sheila sounds like a very typical busy parent and multi tasking is something that seems to, as she said, has become a part of modern life. And which she eluded to a little bit is that you pay a price for it. It's not that you can't do it. You can have one ear on the debate and the other on your kid. But you can only focus on one of those things at a time. And so, for instance, you're either not going to remember something that was said during the debate because your focus was on what your one of your kids was doing. Or your kid is going to say something and you're not going - you're going to realize they said something but you're not going to hear what it was because you were busy listening to that sentence from one of the presidential candidates.

NEARY: Well. What is the research say about this?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, the research says is that really the human brain is design to do one thing at a time. To do things sequentially and we can kind of fake doing several things at a time. But it's a real stretch and I mean, it's - in a way, it's a sort of tribute to the human brain that were able to do it at all. But what we're doing is putting one thing on hold while we shift our focus to the next thing and then we're switching back. And every time you switch, there's a little big of a lag. You lose a little something. It takes a little bit longer to get your brain back where it was. For Sheila, for instance, every time she switches from attending, focusing on what's being said in the debate and goes back to something her kid was saying, there's a little, you know, there's a half second where her brain has to get out of president mode and get into kid mode and you lose something in that.

NEARY: Do you think most people really are kind of honest with themselves about this? Or do you think there are a lot of people who are kidding themselves and thinking that they can do this?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, certainly from the scientists I talked to, they seem to be unanimous. That people fool themselves into thinking they're much better at this than they actually are. And when you actually put people in the lab and make them do this, it's really easy to get people to screw up in ways that they probably are not aware before they go in that they would screw up.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, that's a - let's get someone to join us now who has done some of this research. Daniel Weismann, is a professor of cognition and perception at the University of Michigan. He's joining us from a studio on the campus in Anarbour, Michigan. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DANIEL WEISSMAN (Professor, University of Michigan): Hi, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Maybe you can explain a little bit more what is happening in our brain when we are trying to do one, two, three, four things at the same time.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Well, I think that John's point is well-taken and reflective of a lot of research, which indicates that we really can only focus on one thing at a time. There are some studies showing that sometimes, it might be possible to divide our attention between two things. But for the most part, what's happening in our brain is that we're switching back and forth between two different things.

NEARY: And so that means what in terms of you're doing one task and then you move to another one, you really just can't complete what you've just done or you can't do it well?

Mr. WEISSMAN: Well, it sometimes means that while we're supposedly performing two tasks at the same time, much as Sheila kind of mentioned when she's driving home and she's talking on the cell phone, we think that we're kind of performing these two tasks at the same time. But often times, we have to switch our priorities between these tasks. So for example, if Sheila starts to get engrossed in a conversation on her cell phone, she might stop attending as well to the road in front of her. In fact, some research at the University of Utah, that David Strayer's lab has been doing, shows that talking on cell phones while people are in a driving simulation, results in reduced attention to the road in front of them. They have less memory for say, billboards that kind of went by during the simulation. And even shows that driving while you're talking on your cell phone, is kind of like driving drunk. There's a lot of common commonalities there, where people are much slower to respond to things that happen on the road when they're both drunk and when they're talking on their cell phones.

NEARY: You know, I think that's an idea that a lot of people would just resist. Not everybody, but there's some dedicated cell phone talkers who just would absolutely refuse to believe that's true. So can you tell us a little bit about some of the actual research you've done in an MRI experiment? Maybe you can explain, like some of the work that you have done in this area.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Well, I've been doing some functional MRI studies. Looking at what different brain regions contribute to attention in general and to this ability that we have to switch between different tasks. And some of those studies indicate that giving people advance preparation to switch between tasks, sort of allows the brain to prepare and to therefore perform a task better. So this actually a study that Heliane Slagter(ph) and I and other colleagues, including Marty Welder for Duke University performed. And we just showed that different parts of the brain became active when subjects were instructed that they would have to switch to a new task in the near future. More recently, we've been doing some work here at the University of Michigan, which tries to look at how brain activity and even communication between different parts of the brain relates to our ability to switch quickly between tasks. The idea being that more activation or communication between the different parts of the brain than enable us to switch attention should have facilitate or help us to switch between different tasks.

NEARY: All right, we're going to take a call now. I just want to remind our listeners that we are discussing multitasking, and we'd love to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-989-255. And we're going to go Allen, who is in Fresno, California. Hi, Allen.

ALLEN (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ALLEN: So,(unintelligible),victim of the same trap and I am on lunch right now on the phone preparing for my next class and I have to prepare my notes in cleaning an instrument. And I was wondering for the, your guest, if what kind of results you found psychologically like - I kind of start to feel bad or less efficient if not multitasking even though I've noticed that if I spoke with one subject I always do much better.

NEARY: Uh huh.

ALLEN: And I'm much more successful. Like, I notice if I have three tasks to complete. If I tried to do all three, it takes me maybe 10 minutes, but if I go one, two, or three it might take like seven. But it's the feeling I have when I'm multitasking that I'm more productive especially I'm a music teacher. So, the environment that I work in is highly progressive. And the products that I'm expected to get - sort just difficult in day to day a lot. And I don't know I just feel like I'm doing more. I feel like I'm more.

NEARY: Well, let's get a response from Professor Weissman, because I think this is really interesting what Allen is saying, which is that really he prefers to do one task at the time. But the expectation now, seems to be, that you should be able to do more than one a time.

ALLEN: Right.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Right. Yeah, I mean I think that often times. I mean, it's funny you say you're a musician because I also play the trombone. And when I was growing up, I would always be doing homework and I had some sort of music on the background, and the television without sound on it, you know, at the same time. And somehow, I just sort of felt better doing that. Even though, like you've pointed out, I was slower because in fact I was dividing my attention and switching it back and forth between these different sort of, you know, sources of stimulation. I can tell you that psychological research has shown that when people have to switch back and forth and they try to these multiple things at the same time. They are in fact slower like you said it would take 10 minutes for you to do three things at once as opposed to seven to sort of just do one, two, three in that order. So, that's a big finding as to why it is that some people prefer to do, you know, three things at the time as oppose to only one. I'm not really sure. I think just very speculatively, that there is something about being stimulated in multiple ways, that's challenging. And so, maybe if you are person who likes to be challenged, you might enjoy this type of over stimulation if you will. But I don't actually know precisely, what governs this preference that people seem to have.

NEARY: All right, I think we're going to get more into that after break. Jon, you wanted to say something quickly if you can.

HAMILTON: With the caller raise the question of stress and actually Dr. Weismman's colleague, Dave Mayer, has done. They look at air traffic controllers, and one of the big problems for them, they ultimate multi-taskers and they burn out.

(Sound bite of Talk of the Nation theme)

NEARY: Yeah. All right, thanks so much for your call, Allen. And we're going to continue this discussion about multitasking in a moment. Do you multitask? Does it work for you? The number is 800-9898-255. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Sound bite of music)


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking about all the ways that we multitask at home, in the office, behind the wheel. And to get a sense of what it's like to drive while distracted, check out our website. We have posted a video of a driving simulation while doing two things at once, that's at For the past several weeks, NRP's John Hamilton has been digging up the facts on multitasking. Can we really do to two, three things at once? Or do them well? John Hamilton is with us, also Daniel Weissman, professor of cognition and perception at the University of Michigan. Do you multi task? Does it work for you? And I think I know the answer to the first question for sure. Tell us your story, our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our email is And John, is there - I mean, what we're hearing from everybody is yes, of course, I have the multi task. I mean, is that just the way of the modern world and you know, so if it isn't, if we don't do things as well when we're multitasking as we do and we're doing things one at a time. What should we do?

HAMILTON: Well, the neural scientist I talked to say that like almost everything else, you can learn to do things better. People who multitask a lot seem to get better at, it's probably task switching, but they're getting more competent at it. So, you know, you can say you can practice but for a lot of people, the answer is probably to try to eliminate some things. And you know, you talked about the modern world and a lot of the multitasking we do has to do because things sort of invade our world. Our cell phone goes off, our email comes in, and the instant message is there. And you know, we don't have to respond to all of those. I think we often do, but we don't have to. Maybe saying no is part of the answer.

NEARY: Well, there's an email here I want to raise because it guesses something I want to talk about. This is from Bob in Rochester, New York. Young people, who have had to grow up with dealing with multiple streams of data and information, seem to have an affinity from multi tasking, Scholar Linda Stone calls it continues partial attention, where our attention is it attuned to one item, but we can scan other things we need to attend to peripherally and make a shift with putting our attention to another item, if something significant happened somewhere else, and then the other items become peripheral and are scanned, hope all that makes sense to all of you. Could it be that young people are adopted to be better at this than older people and then this will become something that we evolve to be able to do better than today? Professor Weissman, how about that? I mean, are we going to have to - are our brains going to have to change and adapt to a new set of circumstances, which is technology, which is only accelerating?

Mr. WEISMANN: Well, there's no question that technology is accelerating, and that all around us, we are multitasking all the time, essentially. And all around us are these distracting things, cell phones, blackberry's, text messaging on cell phones. I mean, there's so many things that we're trying to do at the same time, that I think we're being pushed into a situation where learning to be good multi taskers is actually a very rewarding thing. It's interesting that you were talking before about what people can do to sort of improve their ability to multitask. It actually reminds me of some studies that Daphne Bavelier and her colleagues, performed at the University of Rochester. They actually trained people to play video games. And what they showed was that after people were trained to play games, they're attentional abilities on a wide variety of standard laboratory tasks. Including tasks that required some switching between different mental sets or tasks, improved. Video games, I think when you talk about young people today are very popular. And it turned out that some of those results were very specific to particular video games and particular, the ones that are first person shoot them up doom type games. But still, I think that these sorts of experiences may have a training effect that people can learn to become good multi-taskers, if they engage in activities that lend themselves to multitasking.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Hannah, who is calling from Madison, Connecticut. Hi, Hannah.

HANNAH (Caller): Hi. I'm at work right now and I'm listening to your show, and I'm on the phone. And I'm doing homework at the same time, I just wanted to say that I'm 19 years old, and I think my generation is particularly good of multitasking because we've grown up with technology are whole lives. And personally, I get bored if I'm only doing one thing at once. I do the crossword puzzle, I watched a movie, you know, everything.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. WEISSMAN: I'll take a moment to say that the final piece in the series does have to do with multitasking at different ages, and it is sort of interesting. In partly, yes, it does help to have grown up doing like anything we do with our brain. We got better at it if we do a lot of it. But there's something else going on which is - that it appears that the best multi-taskers are about in the caller's age group. College age in there is where our multitasking ability peaks. Children are not good multi-taskers. If you ever watched a child in a busy classroom with the truck in front of them, they're entire attention is to go to that they're virtually unaware of everything going on around them. They're not good for that reason. And older people have exactly the opposite problem, it becomes harder and harder as we get older to shut out all of the distractions, both internal distractions in our mind and external destructions around us. So about at that age somewhere, you know, 19, 25, somewhere in there is when we are absolutely at our peak.

NEARY: Interesting, and the other thing - Thanks so much for you call, Hannah.

HANNAH: Uh huh.

NEARY: Appreciate it. I also - something that I've been thinking about as this shows been going out and I know everybody who is emailing and calling in are sort of having the same awareness of what they're doing at this moment. You know, I'm very aware of the way that I'm multitasking right now. As I do the program, reading emails, trying to get ready for the next caller, listening to you guys. On the other hand, I like nothing better than for instance, in my job, to sort of just dig in and listen to the tape I've gotten and really be able to be one on one with that kind of task. So I am wondering if certain things are more easier for you to multi-task at in whereas other things really do require that full blown attention, professor.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Yeah. I just wanted to make a quick comment also about the age group issue. You know, it is true that younger people around, you know, in their teenage years are certainly getting exposed to all sorts of multitasking situations and that they're good at. It turns out though that there is some research, notably by for example, Art Kramer and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, that shows that if you give older individuals enough practice that they can actually improved their task-switching abilities to the point where they're indistinguishable from those of younger individuals. Now, it turns out the if you strain older adults cognitive abilities by increasing various other demands of the task, like how many things they have to remember while they're performing it. Then that turns out not to be as true. But nonetheless, the idea is that, older adults it's not the case that they can't multi task that if you give them enough practice then they can certainly can. And you'll have to remind me about.

NEARY: I was just saying that I feel like there is certain situations in which I am comfortable with the idea of multitasking, others where I really when it's a big project where I really want to just be concentrating on one thing.

Mr. WEISSMAN: Well, I think, you know, you're getting in a central issue here which is how demanding are the two tasks that people are trying to switch back and forth between or trying to divide their attention between. If they're not very demanding then you can perform them both well even if you're switching back and forth or at least, accurately. But if one of them really takes all of your attention, then it might be difficult to kind of, you know, stop doing it or put it on hold because that might result in an error or a poor performance. One thing that actually, very early researchers like, Gersel, in 1927 reported, was that it's easier to switch back and forth between two tasks when those tasks involve different stimuli. So, for example, if you're switching back and forth between writing an email and talking on your cell phone, that might be easier than switching back and forth between one email and another email, because you might get the two emails confused. And so, sometimes the decision about whether to multi task or not depends on how hard the two tasks are and also how confusable they are.

NEARY: OK. We're going to take a call now from Jerry. And Jerry is calling from Fairfield, Connecticut. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead, Jerry.

JERRY: I thought you're comment about the younger people were better at multitasking than older people. I am 62 years old and I am multitasking all the time in my car. I've got a lap top that I have to review information. I am claims adjuster for an insurance company right now. Before that, I was a police officer for some years and the last part of my career in law enforcement, I had to - we had a lap top in the police car from computer-related dispatch that we have to deal with.

NEARY: Now wait. Are you driving and working on your lap top at the same time? I mean, you're not like stopping, driving and then working on your lap top.

JERRY: Well, we're supposed to pull over and stop. But it's - I mean, it's easy enough to look at the screen and deal with stuff while you're driving down the road.

NEARY: I think you've shocked Jon Hamilton all together.

(Sound bite of laughter)


HAMILTON: I'm a little worried. But your point is well-taken. It's that people who have spent a career doing this are clearly better at it than people who haven't. I think the question is knowing when you're giving up something and what that thing is and how dangerous it is, is the key for all of us.

JERRY: Oh, sure it is. I mean, yeah, you can do it cautiously. And so far, I've been lucky and everything has been OK with it. But yeah, we're multitasking, even the older people do. ..TEXT: NEARY: All right, Jerry.

JERRY: I think a lot of us have to do it because I've been doing it for probably 25 years.

NEARY: Right, we just - thanks so much for calling, Jerry.


NEARY: And be careful on the road, please.

JERRY: Oh, yeah. Right.

NEARY: OK. Oh, yeah, he says. Good idea, Professor Weissman, to be working on your laptop while you're driving a car.

Prof. WEISSMAN: Well, I wouldn't abdicate that. I think that's in a more extreme version of some of the cell phone studies we were discussing earlier where, you know, even talking on the cell phone hands free - you know, you're not holding it. You're just talking into a microphone. That is very disruptive for attending to the road ahead of you and if you then actually start looking down at a laptop screen, well then, you're not even looking, I suppose, at the road ahead of you. And so, I wouldn't encourage that.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call. We're going to go to Mary in Vacaville, California. Hi, Mary.

MARY (Caller): Oh, yeah. Hi. Your discussion just made me think about something that's been puzzling me. I score well on memory tests. I've checked myself several times. I was concerned because my memory seems weak and now, I'm thinking from your show that's because of multitasking, which seems to force my mind into a ram-like functioning short-term memory, which is great but fills me later when I try to recall what I did, what I heard, if I really made that appointment or canceled it. I do some of the things automatic - on automatic pilot, kind of way. It's not so efficient in that case because I often have to double check things.

NEARY: Jon Hamilton, is there anything.

HAMILTON: Well, I think what you're maybe talking about there is closely related to some of the studies they've done on multitasking and learning. And a lot of learning, of course, has to do with moving things from short-term memory into long-term memory, and multitasking seems to disrupt that. Perhaps Dr. Weissman would care to elaborate on that a little bit.

Prof. WEISSMAN: Well, oftentimes, when we're trying to multitask, what we're doing is effectively not paying as much attention as we could be to any particular task. And it turns out that there's a lot of work indicating that we tend to remember what we attend. And so often times as well, we remember things that we encode in all sorts of different ways. So, you can remember me by my voice, you can remember me by my face, you can remember me by the fact that I told you I played the trombone. There's a lot of individual things you can associate with me to help yourself remember me. And when we're not paying attention well, it turns out that these sorts of more elaborated processing that lead to better memory are less likely to happen, right? Because we're not paying full attention and therefore, we spend less time encoding whatever it is we're attending at the moment. And so, it becomes less durable and more susceptible to forgetting.

MARY: And I think we can't rely on - sometimes, our automatic pilot too much for example, I am so used to taking a certain route Monday through Friday. So there I am, Saturday or Sunday, going down the road and I take the turn that really is not where I'm going at all.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Mary.

MARY: You're welcome.

NEARY: I hope that we answered your question. And I just want to remind our audience that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And if you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now from Jodie in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Jodie.

JODIE (Caller): Yes, hi. I am multi-tasker. I actually believe that women were made to multitask. I think that we are created that way and I even created a website called to help support women in doing this. I don't think we could have kids without multitasking.

NEARY: So is there a gender difference, Jon Hamilton? I mean, are women better at multitasking?

HAMILTON: There certainly is a perception that there is and in fact I asked several neuroscientists about this in the course of doing the study. And the best answer I got was that when you actually start testing, it's not obvious that there's a great gender advantage. However, there was a little bit of research that suggested that maybe what's going on is that women are a lot more tolerant of doing multitasking than men are. Men will simply refuse to, whereas the women will go ahead and try to accommodate all these different tasks, and perhaps that's what's going on.

MARY: Because we have no other option. We can't refuse when we're taking care of our children, running our home, you know, have full-time jobs. There's no really other option there and I think if it's not natural in us and we've learned to do it quite well because there are millions of us out there doing it every day. As a result, the site - website, where we are all supporting each other in this.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Jodie.

JODIE: Thank you.

NEARY: Professor Weissman, I just want to - you know, obviously, everybody is multitasking. But the research is saying that it's really not such a good idea, so keep - I don't know. I keep trying to figure what - where to go with that.

Prof. WEISSMAN: Well, one thing that sort of strikes me a little bit about the last caller's statement is that, you know, there's a lot of research showing that the strategies people use when they're trying to coordinate multiple tasks are really critical to determining how successful they are. So, for a long time, there was work by Hal Pashler and his colleagues showing that it wasn't really possible to at the same time, program two different responses that is for you to make a decision about what you're seeing at one moment and then I presented the subject with another stimulus that they had to make a decision about very soon thereafter. There seemed to be this bottle neck wherein essentially, the second decision had to wait until the first decision was finished.

But subsequent researchers, like Dave Meyer at the University of Michigan, were able to show that depending on how subjects were instructed to coordinate these two tasks, that sort of bottle neck in response selection could either be present or absent. And what this makes me think about with respect to men and women and gender differences and multitasking is that men and women may have very different strategies and approaches that they use when they're trying to coordinate different tasks. And so, if in one study it turned out to be the case that women were better than men or if in another study it turned to be the case that men were better than women, it might just be that they're using different strategies.

And what would really be interesting for future research, I think, is to try to understand whether these gender differences are due to something hardwired about men and women - you know, men's and women's brains. That just can't change. So that women can do in something and for example, men can't. Or if it's just that women, you know, do something and men don't even if they could, if they were encouraged to adopt a different strategy. And I think that a lot of research that goes on needs to or would be better if it focused on these various strategies that people use to perform these different tasks.

NEARY: I have to end with this email, which came in earlier actually from Brian in South Africa. You just lost a listener. I'm working on a project and listening to NPR as I always do, but you convinced me that multitasking is bad for my brain. So I've turned you off. Surely, an unintended consequence. And Jon Hamilton, maybe briefly you can tell us what your final segment is going to be on in your series on multitasking.

HAMILTON: The final segment is going to be Looking at Multitasking at Different Ages. So we looked at kids, we looked at college-aged people and we looked at elderly people and how they handle it in their brain and how good they are it.

NEARY: All right. Jon Hamilton is a science correspondent for NPR. Daniel Weissman also joined us. He's a professor of cognition and perception at the University of Michigan. Coming up, Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson will join us. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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