Can us Humans Really Multitask?

It kinda depends. Let me share a quick test I’ve been giving at corporate training sessions to illustrate. At each session, I’ve been asking a lucky volunteer, who claimed to be an exceptional multitasker, to do the following:

  • Watch a 40-second video
  • While watching the video, take a three-question problem-solving quiz

Both of these independent tasks must be done at the same time and completed within one 40 seconds or the duration of the video. A successful multitasker is able recall three main incidents from the short clip and correctly answer the simple quiz questions.

“People can’t multitask very well. When people say they can, they’re deluding themselves, and the brain is very good at deluding itself.” –Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory

Take a wild guess at how many volunteers were successful? Unfortunately, zero self-dubbed multitaskers succeeded or even came close. But the good news is that volunteers were able to 1) remember what happened in the video and 2) answer the quiz questions when they focused on one task at a time.

Back to the question, “Can we humans really multitask?” If we are doing something like drying our hair while watching TV or listening to the radio, yes we can. The hair drying scenario is similar to walking and talking at the same time. Multitasking is possible (even efficient) when we are using different parts of the brain like when we do hair drying types of tasks. But when it comes to multi-focusing our higher executive functions such as remembering and problem-solving, we fail miserably.

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