What the Health: Why am I bad at multitasking?

21 November 2022

Multitasking; we all do it, but why do we struggle to do it well? New research by The University of Queensland may have found an answer to the age-old question.

For a long time we thought our struggles to multitask were due to an inherent limitation in how our brains are built. That is to say, that our multitasking limits were considered structural.

However recent research synthesises biological and modelling evidence to support a new theory; that we actually struggle to multitask because it is tightly linked to our ability to transfer learning to new situations- a trait which makes us flexible and adaptable.

What the new emerging evidence suggests is that we struggle to multitask when our brain is representing information that it is going to use across many tasks in life.

For example, we struggle to multitask when attempting to remember a phone number and writing a shopping list at the same time. This is not because we are limited in what we can do, but because the neurons representing elements of the number-such as individual numbers- will contribute to the same numeric representation when you are counting how many bananas you need.

On the other hand, it’s easy to walk and talk at the same time. This is because what the brain needs to represent to start talking (your thoughts) has very little to do with the information you need to start walking (moving your feet).

For a long time, researchers have been interested in how we transfer learning to new tasks, and why we struggle to multitask. This new research, for the first time, shows that these two key facets of human cognition may actually be two sides of the same coin.

So essentially, it’s not such a bad thing to be ‘bad’ at multitasking because it means you are gaining new skills which can be transferred into other aspects of life.

The research is published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Dr Kelly Garner is a Research Fellow at UQ’s School of Psychology and holds an Honorary Research Fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute. She studies how our individual learning experiences shape how we attend to and interact with the world. She is passionate about equity in science and a cracking cup of tea.