Richard G. Petty, MD

Yet Another Piece of Research on the Dangers of Multitasking

Time has published another article on one of my “favorite” topics: the dangers of multitasking. I’ve written several items about this pernicious problem.

The new study from UCLA, is in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The investigators recruited a group of volunteers, all of whom were in their 20s. They had them work on a simple categorization task, in which they were asked to sort a stack of cards into different piles depending on the shapes printed on them. The volunteers then repeated the experiment with a second set of cards, this time while also listening to a set of high- and low-pitched beeps through a headphone and counting up all the high-pitched ones. As they worked, the subjects also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging that enables us to follow brain blood flow.

In both versions of the test, the subjects did equally well on the categorization task, making about the same amount of errors. But when the investigators later asked the volunteers more-analytical questions, asking them details about the patterns of the cards and ways in which they could be categorized, the subjects showed a far more flexible understanding of those cards they had sorted without the distraction of the beeps.

When not distracted, the hippocampus of the brain, which is involved in creating short term memories and in constructing a map of external space, was actively engaged. When distracted by beeps, a less sophisticated part of the brain – the striatum – took over the task. This is one of the brain regions normally dedicated to mastering repetitive motor task or simple habits.

The practical consequence of this is that if you need to learn new information that requires analysis, you should not be doing anything else at the same time.

It may be that some people with attention deficit disorder will behave differently: there is some data that a proportion of them learn better if there are external distractors.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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