While managers view multitasking as a means to increase productivity, neuroscientists couldn’t disagree more. Decades of research has shown that the human brain wasn’t designed to multitask, and pushing workers to do so not only leads to stressful work environments but also kills.
Dan Harris who spoke to BigThink said “Multitasking is a computer-derived term. Computers have many processors. We have only one processor. We literally neurologically cannot do more than one thing at a time.”
Research has shown that the human brain performs a function called “task switching.” instead of multitasking.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. One stage is the “goal shifting” stage (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). Both of these stages help people to switch between tasks subcontiously which is helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.
One can easily hold a conversation, drink a cup of coffee, and walk at the same time. That’s because two of those acts, walking and drinking, require little focus, allowing your brain to dedicate its processing power to the conversation. (Even then, consider the times you’ve spilled coffee on yourself because the mouth hole shifted slightly to the left).
On the other hand, when two activities require focus, your brain must disengage the neurons for one task (goal switching) and then fire up the neurons for the other task (rule activation), and it must do this every time your attention changes. This is why the modern office environment is so inefficient.
Multitasking has been shown to diminish our ability to learn, stress us out, waste our productive time, and add 50 percent more errors to our work. Previous researches have estimated the global loss from multitasking could be as much as $450 billion a year.
On the other hand Dr. Sara Letzner and Dr. Onur Güntürkün from Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum study on the task switching abilities of people and pigeons show that the birds outperform humans.