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Does Multitasking Really Tire Out My Brain?

03 April 2019

Does Multitasking Really Tire Out My Brain?

 

How many windows are open on your computer right now? If you’re like most of us, I venture to guess you’re running a couple of Internet sites (at least) not to mention your email, your Facebook page, Twitter, a word processer, a spreadsheet, and maybe a few other random software applications. Then close by, is there a cellphone and maybe an eBook reader and an iPod or iPad? Do you like having all these multiple sources of connectivity but worry that they can hamper your productivity? Cheer up! There are actually many advantages to splitting your mental resources, as long as you do it correctly. It may be hard for you to believe that multitasking could ever have benefits. The flurries of articles that sporadically appear in the popular media proclaim that multitasking is the mental version of the apocalypse. They claim that we are all going to descend into the netherworld of scatterbrain syndrome in which our minds deteriorate from too much cognitive fragmentation.

Below is an interesting article written by Markham Heid if multitasking really tire out our brains! Scientists disagree over whether certain mental tasks are more fatiguing than others. We’re all familiar with the sensation of mental fatigue. Your mind feels sluggish and bleary, like it’s gone soft around the edges. You also feel a little cranky and sleepy, and making decisions, even minor ones, is a struggle. The longer you go without sleep and food, the more likely you are to experience this sort of mental lethargy. No surprise there. But comb through the research on cognitive fatigue and you’ll find a mountain of studies that suggest there are certain mental tasks that seem to drain our brains faster than others.

 

“Multitasking is a myth!”

Some of the most robust evidence suggests that multitasking is particularly fatiguing. A 2009 study in Brain Research found that people who spent two hours engaged in a multitasking challenge gradually made more errors and had slower reaction times, which the authors attributed to mental tiredness.

“Multitasking is a myth,” says Daniel Levitin, professor emeritus of psychology at Canada’s McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. According to Levitin, the human brain can concentrate on only one thing at a time, so when you ask your mind to manage several cognitive tasks at once, “all the switching is neurobiologically expensive and will tire you out.”

Making decisions is another chore the brain finds especially taxing, Levitin says, which may help explain why sorting through your inbox can be such a slog. He reels off all the decisions involved in checking email: “Do I read this now or later? Do I respond now or later? Do I forward this to someone? Do I need to get more information before I can answer?” If your day involves heavy doses of both multitasking and decision-making, it’s no wonder you feel mentally exhausted by the end of it.

But here’s the thing: Other researchers argue that mental fatigue is not task-dependent. That’s not to say your brain doesn’t get worn out; it does. But according to this view, multitasking and decision-making aren’t inherently more draining than any other mental chores.

“We’ve tried to get evidence for the differential depletion of cognitive reserves across different cognitive tasks, and we got no evidence at all,” says Ewan McNay, an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University at Albany. “There is definitive evidence that harder tasks cause the brain to consume more fuel” — and by “fuel,” McNay means glucose, which is the brain’s main source of energy — “but there’s no evidence that one kind of task leaves you feeling more mentally tired than any other.”

Last year, McNay published a review paper on the topic of mental fatigue and self-control. For years, an influential body of research has argued that self-control (aka willpower) is a limited resource. But McNay and his colleagues concluded there’s no evidence that exerting your willpower induces mental fatigue more so than other cognitive tasks.

There’s plenty of evidence to support his take. Returning to that 2009 Brain Research study, those experimenters found that even after two hours spent on an arduous task-switching activity, participants were able to improve when they were offered money as a reward. In other words, their drop-off in performance was due to a lack of motivation — not brain exhaustion.

“I suspect that much mental fatigue is psychologically driven rather than biologically driven,” McNay says. How much brain fatigue you feel may depend in part on how much you enjoy what you’re doing. “I’m not a good piano player, but I enjoy it,” he says. “If I spend an hour trying to play piano, I can feel that I’ve been thinking hard, but it doesn’t make me feel tired in the same way as doing something I don’t enjoy.”

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