University of Pittsburgh Environment & Occupational Health and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Multitasking vs. intermittent tasking: does the brain really multitask?

Multitasking: does the brain perform complex multiple tasks simultaneously or intermittently?


If someone were to say to you that the brain does not multitask, that would sound absurd. It is obvious that a person who is awake appears to be multitasking all the time. When engaged in a conversation, a person could be walking, driving, flying a kite, holding a baby, or performing other tasks. The brain is equipped with independent functional centers that allow you to perform unrelated tasks. Hence, you can speak and punch someone at the same time. If you want to see an example, just watch Mohamed Ali fight. When the football player Carli Lloyd is about to perform a penalty kick, she looks at the ball while aiming at her target. A person holding a press conference keeps the microphone close to his or her mouth while looking at the audience and thinking as he or she speaks. Speaking has different levels of complexity. For instance, public speaking may require much more concentration than simply fooling around with some friends. Multitasking is a combination of tasks occurring at the same time. Multiple activities requiring deep attention individually cannot be adequately performed simultaneously. These activities are commonly performed intermittently. In that sense, one can say that the brain does not multitask.

Intermittent tasking:

While it is obvious that the brain can multitask, people (even scholars) often confuse intermittent tasking with multitasking–the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. In a situation where two people address you simultaneously, your first reaction is to say “one at a time”. Obviously, you are unable to pay attention to and process both types of information simultaneously. When they address you one at a time, your brain is performing the tasks intermittently. That is intermittent tasking. Consider the following example. You stepped out for one hour and left your 6-month old boy with a babysitter. When you returned she told you that the baby was asleep in his crib. She said that he just fell asleep, but she changed his diaper, bottle fed him, and fetched some coffee. She also told you on her way out that there is a load of laundry in the washer. You uttered, “you did all of this, wow!” “I can multitask,” she responded. Obviously, she did little multitasking. Most of what she did was intermittent tasking. Even if physically she had the capability of doing all of these simultaneously, the brain is not capable of such complex multitasking as each activity requires special attention to be efficiently performed.

Integrative tasking

While babysitting, she definitely performed bottle feeding and changing diapers at different times. After putting the baby boy in his crib, she then made coffee and subsequently did some laundry. Obviously, all these tasks are integrated with the main task of babysitting. That would be integrative tasking. Importantly, if there were no crib available to keep the baby secure, performing all these tasks could have endangered the life of the baby. Some of these tasks, particularly the laundry, would not be so integrative but instead would be a distraction from the obligation to look after the little boy.

Integrative tasking can be quite impractical sometimes. Texting, engaging in intense conversations, and pressing buttons on the dashboard of your car while driving are all distractive tasks that can get you killed. Each of these activities requires deep attention, and without being aware of it, you are taking time out of your driving to perform these activities. Your driving activity becomes a passive task. The brain is incapable of efficiently performing that level of multitasking. In essence, you just let the car continue while you are not effectively controlling it. You could easily leave the road or collide with another car that just came to a full stop.

In summary, it is not absurd to say that the brain cannot multitask in the context of activities involving complex abstract thinking. These activities require constant attention and can only be performed intermittently. In the context of such activities, be aware that the brain does not really multitask! What we commonly refer to as multitasking is, in reality, intermittent or integrative tasking: diverting your attention from one task to another! I would welcome your comments on this article.

The structure and function of the Brain in less than 14 min

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