Like most working moms, I often credit what’s left of my sanity to my ability to multitask. Whether it’s folding a mountain of laundry while watching TV or typing emails while trying to keep your toddler from pecking at the keyboard, multitasking is how busy moms manage, right?
According to neuroscientists at MIT: Maybe not.
Apparently, we’re not doing several things at once as much as we’re doing several things one at a time, very quickly — and not necessarily very well. So multitasking? It may be just a myth.
Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, our brains simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time — no one’s can. “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said in on NPR’s Morning Edition recently. “You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”
(Ironically, this is something I accuse my husband of doing ALL THE TIME.)
So, when we think we’re multitasking mightily, we’re not. And, even if we were, there are certain things that you can’t do at the same time, because both actions require the same mental resources. “Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time,” he points out. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.” (Driving and talking on the phone use different parts of the brain, I guess.)
Older kids and young adults are better at multitasking than those of us who are hurtling toward middle age, too. (Little kids, not so much — that’s why it’s so easy to distract a toddler.) You know how your teen swears that she can watch TV and do his homework at the same time? (Or, for that matter, how you used to tell your parents that you could?) She probably can — for a while. But as we age, our brains become cluttered, a Wall Street Journal report says.
Cluttered brains? Great. Another thing I’ll have to figure out how to clean.
So, how well do you think you multitask? NPR has a handy little quiz you can try; then come back here and let us know!