Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

Writers need to multitask. If you struggle with multitasking, don’t be too hard on yourself. The brain is not wired to complete more than one task at peak level. A recent study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed when we’re concentrating on a task that involves sight, the brain will automatically decrease our hearing.

“The brain can’t cope with too many tasks: only one sense at a time can perform at its peak. This is why it’s not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving.” — Professor Jerker Rönnberg of Linköping University, who conducted the study.

The results of this study show that if we’re subjected to sound alone, the brain activity in the auditory cortex continues without any problems. But when the brain is given a visual task, such as writing, the response of the nerves in the auditory cortex decreases, and hearing becomes impaired.

As the difficulty of the task increases—like penning a novel—the nerves’ response to sound decreases even more. Which explains how some writers wear headphones while writing. The music becomes white noise.

For me, once I slide on the headphones, the world around me fades away. I can’t tell you the number of times my husband has strolled into my office, and I practically jump clean out of my skin. Don’t be surprised if someday he kills me by giving me a heart attack. But it isn’t really his fault, even though I’ll never tell him that. 😉 I’m in the zone, headphones on, music blaring, my complete attention on that screen, and apparently, my brain decreased my ability to hear.

Strangely enough, I don’t listen to music while researching. When I need to read and absorb content, I need silence. This quirk never made sense to me. Until now.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? Instinctively, you’re helping your brain to concentrate on the visual task.

Research shows that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40% (for everyone except Rev; he’s a multitasking God). Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Doing many different things at once can also impair cognitive ability.

Shocking, right?

Multitasking certainly isn’t a new concept, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new problem. While we know that all this “noise” is not good for productivity, is it possible that it could also injure our brains?

Multitasking in the brain is managed by executive functions that control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Switching from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task (like writing vs. reading)

Moving through these steps may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people repeatedly switch back and forth. This might not be a big deal if you’re folding laundry and watching TV at the same time. However, where productivity is concerned, wasting even small amounts of time could be the difference between writing a novel in months vs. years.

Multitasking Isn’t Always Bad

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking, like listening to music through headphones while using a computer, might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. Study participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage.

The participants completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when the item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better when sound was presented, indicating they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

I can attest to that. If I don’t have my headphones on, chances are I won’t hit my writing goals that day. I’ve conditioned my brain to focus when the music starts. And I store a spare set of headphones in case mine break. Learned that little lesson the hard way.

“Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing,” the authors noted.

How can writers multitask and still be productive?

  • Limit the numbers of things we juggle to two (*laughter erupts in the audience*)
  • Use the “20-minute rule.” Instead of constantly switching between tasks, devote your full attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the next task.

What do you think about these studies? How well do you multitask?

 

 

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writetip, #WritingCommunity and tagged , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion, and will be a panelist at the 2021 New England Crime Bake. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

53 thoughts on “Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Good morning, Sue. Um…what did you say? 🙂

    Thanks for this post. I do that “turn down the gosh darn radio” thing all of the time, particularly in heavy traffic (like the Raising Cane drive-thru line). This explains why. It also gives the lie to the conventional wisdom that men make bad decisions because there isn’t enough blood in the human body to run two brains. Now we know the truth!

    Have a great day, Sue!

  2. My sense of geographical direction is terrible. I love listening to music, but In pre-GPS days, I always turned the car radio off while trying to find my destination–merely turning it down still interfered with my concentration. In fact, I only listen to music if that’s the main activity, such as at a concert or dancing venue.

    I have always marveled at how other people can listen to music and study, write, or do almost anything else. Now I know why, Sue–I can’t multitask.

    • You are not alone, TL. The other day my husband said to me, “If I spun you around a couple times, I bet you couldn’t find your way off our road.” He’s right! I have no sense of direction. None. 🙂

      • I am firmly convinced sense of direction is something you are born with and that cannot be taught. My father could be dropped in a city he had never been to, told to meet at a time and place and show up. Perhaps with a newly purchased street map, but on time.

        My college was learning to be a pilot. Navigation was kinda important. A few of my classmates could not find an airport that was down a major highway, on the shores of a lake, with a navigation beacon on the end of the runway.

        Now I deliver pizzas part time. I have seen drivers who could get lost if I spray painted a stripe door to door. GPS has made this much worse.

        • Haha. So true, Alan. My mother could be dropped out of a helicopter and still find her way home. What an amazing sense of direction. Alas, she did not pass that trait onto me. 🙂

  3. I don’t know from multitasking, but “I’ve conditioned my brain” is golden. I’m a writer, a storyteller. Therefore, I write.

    All in the same little adobe Hovel (my separate writing office) I have this business computer set up on my business desk and my little 13″ writing ‘puter set up on my writing desk.

    When I finish reading blogs, responding to emails, etc. and roll my chair over to my writing ‘puter, my WIP is on the screen and my subconscious almost does flips because it knows now it’s time to play. And what fun we have.

      • Switching computers is a fab idea, Harvey! I look at it like self-hypnosis of sorts. It’s a trigger to focus on storytelling rather than the gazillion other things on the to do list. 😉

  4. Great post, Sue. Lots of important information.

    I’m not a good multitasker. And I struggle to “set aside” the previous task when I try to switch to another task. I think that people with OCD struggle with multitasking more than others, or maybe it’s just that they have more trouble switching to another task.

    Under your suggestions (last paragraph) to help with multitasking, how about “change of venue.” Move from one desk to another. One computer to another. One area of the office to another. Wasn’t it Asimov who used multiple typewriters?

    And thanks, Sue, for not reporting on studies that show women can multitask better than men.

    Have a great day! (filled with many tasks)

  5. Sue, I wouldn’t classify listening to background music as a “task.” Indeed, as you indicate, there are studies that show the benefits of “white noise” for creativity. I alternate between movie soundtracks, Coffitivity, and “city sounds” on YouTube—having lived in NY, I love the soft sound of traffic (absent the angry shouts of cab drivers, of course). It makes me feel like I’m in my old NY apartment, typing by the window.

    • Love the visual, Jim. No, I wouldn’t classify background music as a task, either. But if we’re wearing headphones it becomes an auditory task for our brain, since it’s an alternate device. Writers who toss in checking their phone to the mix, especially social media, disrupt the flow of productivity. That’s a whole other post. 🙂

  6. Which is why the Hubster says, “Be quiet, I’m driving.” It’s taken decades for him to permit me to listen to the radio while we’re driving, but if we hit unfamiliar territory where he’s searching for the address or turnoff, he turns the sound off.
    I’ve heard that there’s really no such thing as mulittasking; your brain just shifts from one task to the other and you’re unaware of it.

    • Exactly, Terry. Our brains don’t multitask, per se. We just think we are, when in reality, it’s a mental shift from one task to another.

  7. Excellent post Sue.

    When I was a teenager, I could read a book and watch TV at the same time. Used to make my mom mad because I was wasting electricity by have the TV on while reading—until I proved to her I was actually doing both by explaining exactly what was going on in both. Now, not so much. One or the other.

    My experience in management is that multitaskers make far more errors so any productivity gains are offset by having to redo work, though it’s nearly impossible to convince multitaskers of this.

    I use earbuds, but music definitely helps me be productive and I don’t need to turn it down to focus—it’s just white noise even if it has lyrics (which KISS, Meatloaf, etc do, hahaha)

    • Excellent point about multitasking and mistakes, Douglas! I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s true. We can’t give 100% to multiple tasks. One will always suffer.

      Love my earbuds, too, but I can’t wear them for long periods of time. In a pinch they work great. Haha! Like you, I listen to songs (playlists for each book). Don’t forget Ozzy! For a murder-y scene, Ozzy rules. 😉

  8. I suck as a multi-tasker. And ironic that your post comes today, because last night I was trying to listen to a podcast while doing things like responding to emails, etc., and I kept having to “rewind” the podcast because I found I hadn’t heard a word they said.

    Add to that, I simply do not process auditory info well. I have tried several times to learn to like listening to books on audio, but each time I do, I have absolutely no idea what it was I just listened to.

    The only time I can process audio information with limited success is if I have the podcast on while doing something mundane like chopping and prepping salads.

    I can’t have ANY kind of noise while I’m writing.

    On the one hand I’m very glad that I require intent focus on whatever I’m doing. I like those periods of immersion–so much of our daily worklife is “Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel!” by design. But multi-tasking would be a great time saver, because there are always more things to process in a day then we can ever get done.

    • So true, Brenda! I can’t enjoy and absorb audiobooks, either. I need to read the words to “hear” the story in my head. Podcasts are great if that’s all I’m doing, but I can’t listen and do other tasks. My brother listens to podcasts and/or audiobooks while driving. How, I have no idea. 😀

      Your point about podcasts/audiobooks while doing a mundane chore like chopping veges aligns with the study. Apparently, our brains don’t freak out while multitasking audio with menial tasks.

  9. I’m not a good multi-tasker–task-switching is really what I do. The challenge there can be getting back to the earlier task. I love your 20 minutes per task idea–perfect with a timer.

    When I write, music is usually a must, to run in the background. Like you, I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin more than once when my wife has had to interrupt a writing session (and she’s very careful not to unless it’s absolutely necessary).

    Very interesting post, Sue!

    • Dale,

      You bring up an important distinction. The way I understand it, multi-tasking is doing two things (or more) at the same time. Task-switching is switching back and forth between tasks, usually very quickly. I think “multi-tasking” is often used to mean the latter.

      • You’re right, as I understand it–multi-tasking is doing two or more things at the same time. No small feat. Of all the writers I’ve been fortunate to know, I knew just one, the late Jay Lake, who said he actually worked on multiple tasks while writing. He had incredible focus (and nearly an eidetic memory, too). That’s definitely NOT me.

        • Agreed, Kay and Dale. A true “multitasker” can do two things at once, like our newest TKZ member. He must not be 100% human. Hahaha.

    • Haha. My husband has tried everything — waving his arms, circling wide, calling out to me before approaching — to warn me ahead of time, but apparently, I must also lose my peripheral vision when I’m hyper-focused on the screen. 😀

  10. Not sure I fully agree with the post. Over the years I was forced to do it. Multi-tasking wasn’t a luxury but a necessity. In the early 2000’s I was appraised on my work performance by how well I could multi-task. I felt if I couldn’t find a path forward I was going to be fired.

    In short, my other career demands it. I manage a small team of people who rely on me, the phone goes off a few times a day, there’s always a problem to solve that takes up huge allotments of time. Then I’m trying to get my writing quota in-between the chaos.

    If you train yourself you get better at it. But then again when I look at my posts and see the typo’s, sometimes I’m a victim of my own processes.

    • It sounds like you’re actually switching between tasks rather than working on two tasks at the same time. Either that or you’re an excellent multitasker. Good for you, Ben!

  11. Great information, Sue. Thank you.

    My ability to multi-task depends on the tasks involved. For example, I do housework while listening to audiobooks and podcasts. The same for running — I listen to audiobooks while I’m out running, but if I encounter something that causes me to think (a puddle that I have to run around), my brain switches to take care of the matter at hand, then returns to the book.

    It’s interesting that different people prefer auditory stimulation as they write. That must be a function of prior conditioning. I sometimes listen to Coffivity, sometimes music, but mostly I don’t have any auditory input while I’m writing. I haven’t noticed any real difference in my ability to concentrate.

    Computers can multi-task because they have multiple processors. We’re not so lucky.

    • Very true, Kay. Although, one of our techies said computers don’t really multitask, per se. Instead, they switch from one task to another, albeit at a superhuman rate. Interesting that you need to pause the audio when encountering a puddle while jogging. If you told me that last week, I’d wonder why. Now we know. Mystery solved!

      • Computers with multiple processors or multiple cores within a processor can run more than one process concurrently. It’s like a cleaning staff that comes into your home. One person can be upstairs changing the sheets on the beds, another can be in the kitchen washing dishes while a third can be vacuuming the living room. As long as they don’t run into each other, they can do their jobs at the same time. (Don’t know why I’m stuck on house cleaning analogies today — must be because it’s Monday.)

  12. Always love your brain posts, Sue.

    You’ve finally explained why, when I think of something to do in another room, by the time I arrive there, I’ve forgotten the reason.

    It’s obviously way too much multi-tasking: think of job, get up from computer, walk upstairs, stand in doorway, search the room wondering why I’m there, go back downstairs, remember, come back upstairs, etc.

    • Hahaha. I do the same thing, Debbie! Affectionately called “senior moments.” Turns out, it has nothing to do with age. Our brains are busy working on other things. Thanks for clearing that up. I feel better already. Now, if I could only stop searching for my reading glasses when they’re on my nose… 😉

      • I have a friend who calls it “destinesia” when you go to another room and can’t remember why you’re there. Perfect word. Maybe we should nominate it for OED.

    • We automatically mind-map everything, even to the point that as we move around, we lose contact with the information associated with our previous location. (Some liken it to moving through a portal. Whatever.) Ever go back to where you were when you knew you needed something? You went back there and read the metadata on your map. Viola!

  13. Excellent post, Sue. In my former lives, multitasking was essential as it was normal to carry 20 open files – all requiring some sort of attention. It was a matter of prioritizing and learning to use the Ike Box.

    However, in this life I try to focus on one thing at a time. I can do research fine with some background noise happening, but for composing I need total concentration from annoyances like my wife crunching potato chips and giggling at Facebook. So for writing, I usually leave the house and go to my spot in the university library where I’m distraction-free. SQUIRREL!!!

    • Garry, your routine of heading to the university to write acts as a trigger for your brain. When you slide into that chair in the corner, your brain knows it’s time to write. I imagine the same is true for coffee shop writers. Fascinating how different writers are, isn’t it?

  14. Intense focus is a more important brain tool than multitasking. Do what you need to do well then move onto something else. From my youth into my early senior years, I had a lot of balls in the air, and I rarely dropped one, and those tended to be my writing balls when the emotional balls were keeping my focus.

    • If you rarely dropped a ball, that’s amazing, Marilynn. You’re a multitasking master. Alas, I am not. Well, that’s not completely true. I can hold my own juggling tasks, but when it comes to writing, my complete attention is on my WIP.

  15. Interesting post, Sue. I need music without lyrics while I write. Regular music is fine while I’m doing other tasks, but the lyrics distract me while I’m writing. My favorites are The Piano Guys because the melodies are familiar songs but most of them have no lyrics.

    Side note: I work with Deaf people for my day job and often their employers tell them that they work faster and accomplish more because they aren’t distracted by background conversations or music. Makes sense with the research.

    • Fascinating, Kelly. It does make sense. They’re focused on one task at a time.

      Ooh, I love the sound of a piano. I’ll have to check them out. Thanks!

  16. Lots to think about here, Sue. I try to cut back on multitasking because writing takes all my concentration. I learned to block out distractions when I worked in a crowded newspaper office. When I’m in the zone, you could drive a truck through my office and I wouldn’t notice. Working with any kind of music in the background is too distracting.

  17. Good post — and a bunch of good responses. However, we too often fall into the thought cage that multitasking is modern, post PC phenomenon. The great entrpreneurial Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, recognised the dangers of multitasking — his railway company the GWR – Great Western or God’s wonderful Railway, had a policy of only hiring illiterate engine drivers. “If they can read they can think. And, when they’re thinking they’ll be thinking about everything other than driving the traiin.”
    During his time the GWR would never employ red haired or ginger haired station staff— but that’s another story.

    • Fascinating, Bill! When I wrote my historical true crime book, I was amazed by the talent of the Victorian era. Many of the toxicology tests are still used today, and those scientists didn’t have the luxury of technology. Impressive indeed.

  18. I’ve always been able to block sounds. The auditory nerves go to part of the brain that can filter sounds without conscious effort. While walking thru a park, a gal said, “Gee, the park is noisy today.” It was like she’d reached out and spun a volume knob all the way. I wrote 3 books in the living room, beside the kitchen, pots and pans banging, the TV on at the other end.

    In acting: don’t rehearse lines sitting if they’re to be recited standing. You imperil recall when they have to be delivered on stage. Apparently the standing up muscles take RAM away from the memory muscles.

    Multitasking is driving an MGA with no synchromesh on 1st or 2nd, heel-and-toe braking in a turn, operating the turn signals while checking the rear view mirror.

    • Yep, that’s why. And you’re not alone, Traci. We all have days where it feels like we’re spinning our wheels and getting nowhere.

  19. I’ve never been able to successfully multitask. In my former life as an aircraft engine mechanic I had to concentrate exclusively on the task at hand-I was always painfully aware that a screwup would cost someone a lot of money or perhaps a life. That experience conditioned me to shun multitasking. In my law career I did have numerous files but I did not work on more than one file at a time and that was dictated by the court calendar. Some wise person once noted that multitasking was the ability to simultaneously do several things poorly at one time. I believe that, at least for me.

    • I believe that, too, Robert. I’m far more productive if I focus on one task at a time. Now I know why…I’m keeping the ol’ brain happy. 🙂

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