Now let’s be clear here, there’s multitasking and there’s multitasking.
Listening to the radio while washing-up, driving or knitting can be classified as multitasking, as can walking and chewing gum, but it’s the sort of multitasking that constantly interrupts the brain’s ability to process information that’s really at issue here.
The myth is that we can multitask and still be proficient at learning a new skill or new facts. Truth is, while the neuroplasticity of our brains makes it possible to multitask, it comes at a cost.
By constantly switching back and forth between tasks that are concerned with visual processing and physical co-ordination, we distract the brain from its ability to utilise the higher centres of learning and memory.
"Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of a study published in 2006. "Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialised, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”
"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," Poldrack added. "Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention."
So while it’s perfectly possible to, say, write a report, do your maths homework, or revise for an exam while checking emails, conversing on MSN, or sending and receiving text messages, the constant interruptions mean that although you can probably get the work done, you won’t remember much of what you did 24 hours later.
With constant interruptions, it takes longer and is less effective. Concentrate well, and you probably only need to do it once to remember something. Constant distractions probably mean you will – in the long run – waste time, having to do it over and over before it “sticks”.
Your brain can do what you ask of it perfectly well, as long as you don’t keep on interrupting it while it’s doing it.