What Multitasking Does To Your Brain

Having 20 tabs open on your laptop while Snapchatting with your best friend, eating a sandwich, and listening to Taylor Swift is overwhelming. And makes you mean.

What Multitasking Does To Your Brain
[Image: Flickr user Marc Eliot]

In case we needed another reason to close the 15 extra browser tabs we have open, Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford, has provided major motivation for monotasking: according to his research, the more you multitask, the less you’re able to learn, concentrate, or be nice to people.


For a case study, turn to your nearest broadcast news station (and don’t say Fast Company didn’t warn you): if the talking head on the screen is accompanied by a “crawler” at the bottom blurbing baseball scores and the day’s tragedies, you’ll be less likely to remember whatever the pundit is saying. Why? Because, research shows that the more you’re multitasking, the less you’re able to filter out irrelevant information.

As Nass told NPR, if you think you’re good at multitasking, you aren’t:

. . . We have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.

They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And . . . they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

Multitasking rewires our brains.

When we multitask all day, those scattered habits literally change the pathways in our brains. The consequence, according to Nass’s research, is that sustaining your attention becomes impossible.

“If we [multitask] all the time–brains are remarkably plastic, remarkably adaptable,” he says, referencing neuroplasticity, the way the structures of your brain literally re-form to the patterns of your thought. “We train our brains to a new way of thinking. And then when we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”

How it affects our work

As James O’Toole notes on the strategy+business blog, the dangers of multitasking are as multifarious as they are nefarious.

Multitasking stunts emotional intelligence: Instead of addressing the person in front of you, you address a text message.


Multitasking makes us worse managers: The more we multitask, the worse we are at sorting through information–recall the broadcast news kerfuffle above.

Multitasking makes us less creative: Since attention is the midwife of creativity, if you can’t focus, that thought-baby isn’t coming out.

Hat tip: strategy+business

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.