If you're e-mailing, instant messaging, and writing a memo simultaneously, your business may be suffering. A new research report from France indicates that, although multitasking is common in this computer age, attention declines dramatically when a third task is introduced.
Dr. Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris and lead researcher on the project, said people can cook and talk on the phone at the same time -- but not also read a newspaper. "If you have three or more tasks, you lose track of one task," he told news media. The study is published in the April 15 issue of Science magazine.
Two Choices Better
The research was conducted with brain imaging of 32 right-handed volunteers, who were observed with functional magnetic resonance imaging while doing a letter-matching task. Volunteers received money rewards for the number of letters matched without error.
For the initial task of matching, one side of the frontal lobe was active. A second task involved matching uppercase letters as well as lowercase letters, and each of the two tasks had separate reward structures. For two tasks, two lobes divided the effort.
The left frontal lobe handled the main task, and the right one the secondary task. The efficiency of switching between the two lobes diminished when a third task was added. Dr. Koechlin said this explains why some people don't make good decisions when faced with more than two choices.
The area of the brain that was active is used for organizing tasks and the order in which tasks are done. This area, called the frontopolar cortex, is more developed in humans, and the French researchers suspect this means we are the only species able to multitask.
'More Is Less'
While multiple goals may be held concurrently in the brain, the attention required for actually executing the tasks is accomplished by rapidly switching between the tasks. But if one of the tasks results in too much additional thinking, distraction may occur -- as in driving while texting.
The study offers a bit of good news for multitaskers: It is possible to perform more than one task well, which is almost a necessity in business and at home in a world of always-on electronic connections. But the bad news is that two tasks seem to be the limit for efficient multitasking.
Michael Gartenberg, a partner and analyst at the Altimeter Group, said that, as computer and communication technologies continue to grow, people will "have to learn that you can lose productivity" by trying to be too productive.
"In other words," he said, "more is less."
Posted: 2010-04-17 @ 1:38am PT
I wonder if apple-sponsored this study ;)