We've all been told how "practice makes perfect" and from the brain's point of view that's right, most of the time.
When we learn a new skill or form a habit, practicing those strengthens the synaptic connections for that neural pathway, so that with time it takes less energy to perform the activity and in the case of habits automates them into our subconscious.
Which is all fine and dandy except when it comes to the one brain function that gets worse with practice.
When we attempt to multitask, we are asking our brain to focus on more than one thing at a time, which is something we're not designed for.
The trouble is we multitask because it makes us feel good (through the illusion of getting through our to-do lists and that lovely squirt of dopamine our reward hormone), because we think we can and because we think we're good at it.
Sorry to tell you, but even if your parents are Clark Kent and Super Woman, you cannot multitask. Not if you have superpowers. Not if you are young. Not at all.
Surely our plastic brain can help us improve?
Believe me it has been tried and all that happened was that while people can get better at fragmenting their attention and do lots of different things faster simultaneously we can still only apply our selected focus to one item at a time.
The evidence against multitasking. Or why we really shouldn't do it.
1. The more we multitask, the worse we get.
Chronic media multitaskers - you know the ones: texting while on their mobiles while writing an email on their tablet, diminish their ability to focus to the extent they find it difficult to organise their thoughts, filter out irrelevant information or even focus well on one thing at a time. Ouch.
2. Multitasking strains our brain.
Multitasking leads to a reduction in concentration, learning, memory and recall. We can take up to 50% longer to complete our work and make up to 50% more mistakes. Why would you bother?
3. It is linked to a difference in brain structure.
Research from the University of Sussex in 2014 showed that those who simultaneously use several media devices such as laptops and mobile phones have lower grey matter density in the area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACC) The ACC is involved in cognition and emotional control.
The worry has been that multitasking impacts how we interact with others as well as our thinking skills. While this study doesn't show a direct association, this result warrants further investigation.
Loss of grey matter density implies a loss of neuronal connections, which is definitely not the way towards better brain health.
4. Still not convinced?
Which of the following activities temporarily reduces your IQ by 10 points?
A. Smoking marijuana
B. E-mailing while talking on the phone
C. Losing a night's sleep
D. Watching two hours of "Days of our Lives"
The answer is B
Multitasking makes us more stupid. Yes, if you want to actively lower your IQ - here's an easy way to do it as demonstrated by a study from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London. They revealed how multitasking effectively lowers IQ more than smoking pot or losing a night's sleep.
The way forward is to ditch multitasking and chuck it in the brain myth waste bin where it belongs.
To do our work well, to stay focused and on task, monotasking is the solution.
And if you want a really cool way to regain your focus and practice your monotasking skills, learning how to juggle is ideal - it even boosts your grey matter density.
Is multitasking a persistent thorn in your side?
Have you tried monotasking to experience the difference?
Could we all find ourselves more empathetic, less stressed and switched on by switching off our social media?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Kep Kee Loh, Ryota Kanai. Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (9): e106698 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0106698