Multi-task myth could do with some kicking

Anyone who has been put on hold during a live conversation while the other person, index finger raised, is distracted by some vital e-Task, will have had cause to wonder upon the phenomenon of multi-tasking. Is it a revelation of superior intelligence that your interlocutor really can maintain a conversation with you while checking that that a text message got through while confirming to the home front that they’ll be home by six? Or is it simply a thoughtless power display suggesting that you can suck up the wait while they shift back and forth amidst the trivial pursuits of their little day?

Amidst all the commentary about multi-tasking, a distinction often ignored is between different types of tasks – those that require little or no conscious neural processing, like walking, and those that do, such as focusing on a chess game while reciting poetry. Anyone who claims they can combine elements of the latter is not only unlikely to be strong on either chess or poetry, but research has shown that performance in each one markedly diminishes while both are being attempted at the same time.

What’s more, it seems that high multi-taskers might even possess smaller brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area running our emotional and cognitive control functions. The essence of the correlation needs further study: is it that multi-taskers find their brains shrinking, or is their appetite for multi-tasking a symptom of having smaller brains in the first place? Either way, the news is not good for multi-taskers.

And we shouldn’t be complacent about the potential for multi-tasking even among those of us who are performing low-processing activities. American president Lyndon Johnson famously derided a fellow president who was “so dumb he couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” In his defence, perhaps the victim of LBJ’s wit might have suggested he wanted to concentrate fully and with focus upon the full sensual pleasure of each activity, without distraction.

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