How multitasking can inhibit learning

There is a prevalent myth that humans can multitask and that girls are better at it than boys. Unfortunately, the neuroscience suggests that no one can fully concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Thus, if we are listening to the radio while cooking a meal, we rapidly switch our attention from one task to the other depending upon external stimulus. For example, if the pan starts to boil over, we switch back to that task and miss out on everything being said on the radio.

Switching our concentration between tasks takes some time and effort – we find it harder to do when we are tired or if there are many tasks that are demanding our attention. Interestingly, inside our computers and phones, each processor achieves multitasking the same way, by rapidly switching between tasks. Our computers can do this much more quickly than we can, and they are able to allocate separate memory stacks for each task, while we rely on the same one.

Many of our daily tasks happen slowly enough that attention switching provides an effective strategy. Things fall apart when there are some rapid events occurring (such as children arguing in the back seat while we are driving and checking on a truck coming toward the intersection). The brain has developed a partial strategy to cope with a life full of multiple tasks. With practice, we can automate much of our routine thinking, relieving ourselves of the load of focused concentration for some of the time. Sportspeople call this “muscle memory” and it is the reason that drill and practice can improve our performance on routine tasks. When parts of a task are automated, we can use the extra thinking capacity for situational awareness and problem solving.

Learning requires building long term memory and this takes concentration and effort. There is little we can automate at the initial learning stage and so any attempt to switch tasks immediately interrupts the learning process. Distractions such as phones, social media pop-ups or barking dogs can force the brain out of the deep focus needed for learning as it switches attention to another task. If the interruptions are frequent, the brain tends not to invest in the deep concentration needed for good learning as it is expecting another interruption along with the associated effort to switch attention.

Tips to improve deep learning:

  • Remove distractions so your brain is only dealing with one task. When in this state (often called a “flow state”), time ceases to be noticed as we totally immerse ourselves in what we are doing.
  • Automate any of the basic skills that will be used in understanding – the most common ones are literacy (know the technical terms), fluency and numeracy.
  • Only try deep learning when fairly fresh as a tired brain finds it hard to apply the energy and effort required to put the material into long term memory. This is why long, late night sessions can feel productive at the time, but a day later haven’t resulted in much learning gain.

Tips to improve automation:

  • Automation of basic tasks can only be done through repetition. Through repeated exposure to the situation, the brain builds up a pattern on common features.
  • Use multiple repeats of the same skill and then try to apply that skill in a variety of contexts so the brain can find the common features. While this is a common approach in learning Mathematics, it can be applied to parts of any subject or skill.

Andrew Baylis Director of Learning & Research