Modern Minds: More than Multitasking

 

Focusing on more than one activity at a time can improve your ability to do so, while also boosting brain function.

Humans get more amazing by the millennium. It seems like just yesterday we learned the world was round, developed algebra, and devised the means to fly. And as everyone in the digital age knows, we can now do two or more things in the same moment of time. Or can we?

Humans have been multitasking for eons. When this skill is developed properly and safely, it can actually improve the ability to multitask itself, while also boosting brain function. Understanding multitasking mechanisms can literally help the entire body function better because doing so sparks several built-in therapeutic benefits through increased brain activity and blood flow.

To me, multitasking is simultaneously performing two or more undertakings very well. Or several, and sometimes even many. Note the emphasis on very well. It goes beyond walking and chewing gum at the same time. Having an important conversation with someone while he or she is engulfed in their other iPhone tasks is probably not a very good conversation. And we all know about talking on the phone while driving.

All that we do is part of a multitask, which includes performing each single task with the high quality deserving of this masterpiece we call the brain. During multitasking, each task should get the same attention it would if it were our only task. Whether it involves cooking, garden activities, or gathering digital data, each task is separate yet an intricate part of another, and usually more, all managed by one brain. A great chef can prepare a delicious four-course meal for 10 just as good — some would say better — than one meal at a time. A great clinician will assess the patient in many ways all at once — while watching body movement, listening to voice quality and sensing odor, while taking notes or blood pressure, and formulating the next relevant question. We all want to be great humans.

Quite often the brain is multitasking subconsciously. As an example, I will soon stop writing this article, allowing various brain areas to take over, and mull over, the draft. Returning to it a day or two later will usually bring with it some very good results — a new description, a better last line, a reduced word count. This type of multitasking can also occur while sleeping, with a refreshed version of the draft upon awakening. We often wake with fresh ideas for the same reasons.

While the human mind multitasks well, some people are also highly efficient at physically multitasking as well.

Can the brain really perform two or more separate motor tasks — some sort of body maneuvering — as well as it can separately? Probably not precisely, but close, especially when practiced. Juggling is a common example, but it’s not much different than washing dishes while cooking a couple of items on the stove, making four different Phil’s coffees at once, and playing music, which requires various accurate physical and mental maneuvers. No doubt some group of psychologists have done just such an experiment somewhere, measuring how many errors are made. And no doubt there was a lot of multitasking involved in that research — group dynamics make for an intriguing array of multitask-type activities, and human errors.

Another way of multitasking is to sense movement in the mind. This can really get the neurons rolling, so to speak, turning on motor pathways to muscles in preparation for action in case you actually want to perform the task. This mental imagery has long been utilized in a variety of sports with obvious applications. It’s also used as a memory tactic. Think about following a certain pathway through the woods, or a route across the city. While these mental actions themselves are a great mental exercise, they are also the basis of memorizing great volumes of material. And if you make a mistake during your travels, don’t get too frustrated — the brain does not like stress hormones.

Back to the issue of human error, which can, and does, occur during mental and physical multitasking. Consider cell phone use while driving and the increased risk of an accident. Hands-free conversations are still multitasking, and can still raise the risk, as can even a discussion with a passenger.

If we consciously try to focus on one event within a multitask it can lead to errors, like crashing your car. It’s why, even from a distance, you can tell another driver is on the phone — the vehicle slows down when the driver is talking or texting, a reflex by the brain to reduce speed in hopes of decreasing the level of danger.

It seems that our fast-paced modern digital world forces us to multitask more, as if we have more to do these days. We have business meetings or discuss sensitive subjects while driving, or over lunch.

While I enjoy my multitasking mind staring into the woods or out an airplane window, others can’t. Some actually feel uncomfortable if there’s nothing in front of them to multitask. They seem to be sitting quietly, but the brain is raging — it shows in fidgeting fingers or restless legs, quick head turns and darting eyes.

Managing our multitasking might involve learning how to force quit. We should have some of these comfort zones built into our day, no matter how busy we appear to be. While in this zone, just like our all-night sleeps, we should turn down the stress. Driving the car, eating a meal, or relaxing after a busy day are times to give the mind a short break. It’s the perfect time to let go of all those other things going on in the head — and letting our mind deal with it subconsciously. We can literally change our minds by enlisting our other senses, like smelling the roses. In the car, for example, we can listen to enjoyable music — likewise at meal times while enjoying the tastes and smells of good food. Getting back to more obvious multitasking after this short break will make the mind — the whole body — more efficient, more creative, save us time, and help us be less likely to make mistakes.

Many people already multitask very well, although some may not realize it. Others don’t. Regardless, making the mind do more of it is one of its pleasures, and another way to exercise it, from a neurological standpoint.

In this case, multitasking is more than a game — doing it brings more more blood flowing into the brain because more centers are turned on, more nutrients get in, more neurons connect to others, thus increasing our neural network. All leading to a better brain more capable of multitasking — and doing everything else — more efficiently.

2 Comments

  • Michel says:

    “When this skill is developed properly and safely, it can actually improve the ability to multitask itself, while also boosting brain function.”

    I experienced “unsafe” situations when time for each task wasn’t enough to do progress in them. Focus started to shift between the tasks and there wasn’t a emergency button to push anywhere. A very unpleasant situation at the time. I guess the background job queue was full and the most stressful tasks surfaced and wanted focus!

    So where can one find out more about developing this skill properly and safely?

    PS
    Running brain on ketones makes a big difference!

    • Michel:

      Gray Cook of Functional Movement Systems and Dr. Nicholas Romanov of The Pose Method have done a lot of work on this topic. Check them out.

      In a more general sense, the way to learn a skill safely and effectively is by being incremental. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, break it down to its component parts and then build it up from scratch. For example, if you want to train a single-leg deadlift, you need to train reciprocal motor control of the hip joint (legs) which involves its own mobility and static stability training, then you need single-leg dynamic stability. And if you want to learn how to deep squat you need all this and more.

      A good resource that describes the mental aspect of skill development is Mihali Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

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