Can People Really Multitask?

How the Brain Handles Multitasking

Receptionist standing at desk
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The short answer to whether people can really multitask is no. Multitasking is a myth. The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at once. Low-level functions like breathing and pumping blood aren't considered in multitasking. Only the tasks you have to "think" about are considered. What actually happens when you think you are multitasking is that you are rapidly switching between tasks.

How the Brain Works

The cerebral cortex handles the brain's "executive controls." Those controls, divided into two stages, organize the brain's tasks processing.

The first is goal shifting. This happens when you switch your focus from one task to another.

The second stage is rule activation. This turns off the rules (how the brain completes a given task) for the previous task and turns on the rules for the new task.

So, when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching your goals and turning the respective rules on and off in rapid succession. The switches are fast (tenths of a second) so you may not notice them, but those delays and the loss of focus can add up.