Multitasking is common but can be problematic. As parents and members of our modern society, it is sometimes necessary. But for your brain’s sake, it should be used only when absolutely needed. Let’s explore what multitasking does to your brain and how you can avoid it.

Having our brain constantly shift gears pumps up stress and tires us out, leaving us feeling mentally exhausted. Working on a single task means both sides of your prefrontal cortex are working together in harmony. Adding another task forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. Scientists at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris discovered this when they asked study participants to complete two tasks at the same time while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results showed that the brain splits in half and causes us to forget details and make three times more mistakes when given two simultaneous goals (1).

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully. People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

Multitasking lowers IQ

A study at University College of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child (2).

Brain damage from multitasking

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes that our brains are “not wired to multitask well... when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”(3)

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control (4).

How to help your brain

  • Spend at least 20 minutes doing one task exclusively, such as reading a book. This allows your neuropathways to reconnect and break the fractionated loop.
  • Meditation - having a time of breathing and just focusing on your breath also helps break the fractionated loop.
  • Remove distracting apps from your phone.
  • Use a to-do list.
  • Work in small intervals.
  • Stop browsing websites during your working time.

Meditation can be a longer session or it can be short sessions of focusing or breath-counting. “Just three 10-minute sessions of breath counting was enough to appreciably increase their attention skills on a battery of tests. And the biggest gains were among the heavy multitaskers, who did more poorly on those tests initially,” writes Daniel Goleman (5).



Multitasking Splits the Brain

Integrating knowledge of multitasking and interruptions across different perspectives and research methods - UCL

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Brain scans reveal ‘grey matter’ differences in media multitaskers

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman