Can Our Brains Handle the Information Age?

Bret S. Stetka, MD; Daniel Levitin, PhD


September 24, 2014

In This Article

The Pitfalls of Multitasking

Medscape: You write about the downsides of multitasking, something many busy clinicians are likely familiar with. What is happening biologically when we multitask, and why it is not usually the best way to get things done?

Dr Levitin: Neurologically, when we "multitask," we are not actually doing several things at once. Instead, our brain is rapidly shifting from one thing to another, so we are actually sequentially unitasking. Unitasking is normally associated with good outcomes—you focus your attention on one thing for a sustained period of time, and you get quality creative work done. But if you are fractionating your attention into little five-second increments or one-second increments, moving from texting to your phone to email to your work, the effect is lowered productivity.

People who multitask think that they are doing a lot of things and being productive. And it's true that they are busy. They are engaged, and their arousal levels are high, physiologically, but according to a number of studies, they are actually getting less done. They are not saving time. They are wasting time. Multitasking also produces the stress hormone cortisol, which dulls your senses and cognition.

Medscape: In a recent New York Times op-ed, you discuss ways to avoid multitasking and better use our time. What can busy clinicians do to be more efficient?

Dr Levitin: It's difficult, but exercise the discipline to unitask. Allow yourself to become absorbed in one thing for a period of time before moving on to the next and avoid the constant distractions of text and emails. Some people open up a separate email account, and they only give the address to a few people who they need to be in touch with all the time. People get second cell phone numbers, and they only give that to a limited number of people for the same reason. It depends on your social circle. If you have people texting you all the time for reasons that are not urgent, you either have to ask them to stop or set up a separate phone number for the people you really need to hear from.

And the other thing, as I mentioned in the Times piece, is that taking breaks is really important. There is a reason that air traffic controllers are required to take them—they have a duty cycle of working for 60 to 120 minutes and then break for 15 to 30 minutes. It is law because it has been shown to work. You need to give your brain a chance to process and consolidate the information that it has been dealing with and reset itself. This is called the brain's "day-dreaming mode," when we are not actively engaged in a task but letting the brain process the information it has acquired.

Medscape: And often creative, innovative ideas are generated in this mode, correct?

Dr Levitin: Yes, much of our creative activity comes from there—the discovery of the benzene ring by August Kekulé, for example, and also Francis Crick's dream about the double helix of DNA. I think it is why judges often take things under advisement. After all the facts are in, they will take a few days before they render a decision. It is giving them a chance to ruminate about what they've heard. It wouldn't bother me if my doctor said to me, "We're looking at some lab results, and I need some time to think about this." I don't want the doctor making a snap judgment, unless of course it's an emergent situation. So depending on a clinician's specialty, I think many could benefit from taking breaks and using the day-dreaming mode to their benefit.


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