This Is What Multitasking Is Really Doing To Your Brain, According To Science

by Julia Guerra

Ever since the ripe age of 10 years old, I've always been a busy-body, and I attribute this to the not-always-so-wonderful worldwide web.

I was in fourth grade when my family bought our very first computer, and I can remember the painful waiting periods between sibling usages.

I'd get online and play hours of Tetris, pinball, and more, but using the computer for just one task at a time didn't last long.

It seemed to happen gradually, then all at once. The millennial generation was introduced to AOL, Instant Messenger; we learned how to use “tabs” to search through multiple channels per minute.

Then, once you were able to access the internet on your phone, watching television and texting peers became simultaneous activities, and by the time social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram took off, you could be having a conversation with your mother at the dinner table while living a whole other online existence.

Multitasking used to be considered an impressive skill, but now scientific research suggests simultaneously juggling a number of tasks is not only less productive, it can also be harmful to your brains.

Quality, Not Quantity

Completing a medley of tasks in a given time period makes you feel accomplished, but the problem here is not a matter of quantity, but quality.

For example, say your professor is giving a presentation to the class regarding an upcoming exam. You've got your laptop open to email, a maximized Word document, and your cell phone at your side. All set, right?


Your brain is splitting its attention four ways, challenging its cognitive control. In this case, you'd be less likely to absorb any useful information from your professor's lecture, the project you've been scribbling about in Word risks running slightly off-topic, and the less thought you put into your email responses, the more they'll sound like complete gibberish.

A team of Stanford researchers recently studied 100 students to assess what kind of effects multitasking can have on the brain.

The verdict? Negative -- especially when electronic devices and social outlets were involved.

Anthony Wagner, an associate psychology professor at the university, told Stanford News,

When they're in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information.

Lesson learned.

A Physical Effort

When it comes to multitasking two or more activities, CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said,

You're not actually doing both activities at the same time, in fact, you're now diverting your attention from one part of your brain to another part of your brain. That takes time, that takes resources, that takes brain cells.

Diverting our focus from one thing to another is easy, but the brainpower behind multitasking can be seriously strenuous.

Even something as natural as listening to a passenger when you're in the driver's seat of a car will reduce your ability to fully concentrate on the road.

It's best to eliminate distractions, and focus on the original task at hand.


When it comes down to it, multitasking is just a fancy word for "system overload."

Juggling multiple school or work assignments at once can be difficult, and it often results in self-inflicted stress. Ain't nobody got time for that, amirite?

But it's not just work-related multitasking that negatively affects the brain. This insatiable need to interchangeably update and scroll through social feeds plays an imperative role, too.

Iiro Jääskeläinen, an associate professor at Aalto University, tells ScienceDaily,

Social media is really nothing but multitasking, with several parallel plots and issues. You might end up reading the news or playing a game recommended by a friend. From the brain's perspective, social media only increases the load.

Social media has its pros, but it certainly has its cons, too.

Go ahead and add this to the bucket of reasons why you should sign off when your brain deserves a much-needed break.