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Employees who try to multitask in an effort to improve their productivity are not giving themselves the best chance at success, research finds.
In an online lecture released Tuesday as part of this month's first-ever West Virginia University massive open online course (MOOC), assistant professor Elizabeth Cohen detailed the limits of the brain and how its natural sensitivity to interference leads to cognitive bottlenecks that allow it to only process a limited number of things at one time.
Cohen said the brain has a finite pool of resources to use at any given moment to process different types of information or perform different cognitive tasks.
"If we don't really have much to attend to, then we have all of these resources free to dedicate to anything we want to concentrate on," Cohen said. "On the other hand, if there is some sort of task that just requires a lot of heavy-duty concentration, then our attention is not going to be very full if we try to do something else."
She specifically pointed to brain processing speeds, working memory and attentional resources when noting brain limitations that affect multitasking ability.
In addition to brain limitations, Cohen said certain interferences — both internal and external — also impact the brain's ability to successfully multitask. Internally, both intrusions, better known as mind wandering, and diversions, things you want to think more about that aren't necessarily on task, are the two biggest impediments to multitasking. Externally, Cohen said distractions and interruptions also negatively affect the brain's ability to multitask.
"We have severe brain limitations and we also have this extreme sensitivity to interference and all of this makes it really difficult for our brain to figure out what it needs to be processing," Cohen said.
Cohen said problems arise when too much information comes and a bottleneck of information occurs in the brain's prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for choosing which information to process and when.
"The prefrontal cortex can only do one thing at a time, so you get this bottleneck effect," Cohen said. "All of the backup is slowing down how much you are able to process."
Cohen said past research shows it takes about four times longer to complete a task when also doing something else.
"That is a significant impediment to you actually accomplishing one task," she said.
Cohen said the combination of brain limitations and interferences are the reasons why multitasking gets such a bad rap.
"We know that biologically we are not set up to handle two things at once," Cohen said. "We can do it, but when we do it we are not as productive and can't do it as quickly."
Cohen's lecture, "The (Cognitive) Trouble with Media Multitasking," was part of a four-week online course designed to examine the role communication technology plays in everyday life.
To learn more about the classes and watch some of the previous lectures, visit West Virginia University's new MOOC website.