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Why It’s So Hard For the Human Brain to Multitask

If you’re trying to read this story while also listening to a podcast, you’ll probably end up frustrated, losing focus on one or both tasks altogether. There’s a reason for that: Your conscious mind is incapable of dealing with more than one thing simultaneously if those operations require the same parts of the brain.

“Your [brain’s] language regions are processing the sounds, the words, the meaning of the sentences,” says Marc Coutanche, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. When you read and listen to two separate things, he explains, you’re forcing your brain to draw on the same resources. “Imagine a circuit where you’ve got multiple inputs and multiple outputs, but they share the same wires,” Coutanche says. At best, what you’re doing is serially switching between them.

That leads to a situation where you have a Frankenstein’s monster of thoughts on your hands. You can try to put a few things together, but what you get in the end isn’t what you expected. You might retain a small bit of information from the story and a sliver from the podcast, but you won’t be able to fully absorb both.

On the other hand, if you’re drawing power from separate regions of the brain, your conscious mind can multitask.

You can drive while listening to a podcast, for instance, or listen to the pod as you sketch. That’s because one operation is verbal/listening (engaging the temporal lobe), and the other is visual-​spatial (engaging the right parietal lobe). The two systems can operate without crosstalk.

It turns out your brain is also pretty remarkable at multitasking when it comes to the unconscious mind.

“Simultaneity is possible for conscious thought, and some activities that can be done unconsciously, like controlling your body. This is why you can walk and daydream at the same time,” says Joseph W. Kable, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. This is also why you can breathe, blink, and take a sip of water while working on a DIY project in your workshop.

There is a way you could sidestep your conscious brain’s biological limitations: a human-machine interface like Elon Musk’s Neuralink (see sidebar), which could give your brain a few extra circuits, literally and figuratively, for multitasking in the same brain regions. Until we get that implant, though, just slow down and appreciate one thing at a time.

🧠 Elon Musk Wants To Upgrade Your Brain

The world’s busiest billionaire says you waste serious brainpower taking a thought, compressing it into a few words, and communicating it to another person who must then decompress those words into a thought. But with a direct neural interface like the one Musk is working on through his brain implant startup Neuralink, it could be possible to improve the bandwidth between your brain’s cortex (the layer that deals with functions like long-term planning) and the digital world by up to 1,000 orders of magnitude, according to Musk. Someday, this could mean telepathically talking to others or maybe even uploading your consciousness into a robot or another person’s brain.

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