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Multitasking at Work Part 2: What Does My Brain Do?

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

Whomever has read the first part of my blog on multitasking and found it interesting is welcome to read further. For new readers, it could be a separate little summary about what is happening at the brain level when we attempt to multitask. As usual in scientific studies there is no one single way to investigate a topic of interest. In the following section I will review some of the approaches employed in multitasking research. Stay tuned.

Cognitive processes involved in multitasking

Despite the variety of research and importance of the topic, just limited attention is devoted to cognitive processes involved in multitasking. Experimental psychologists did some interesting comparisons here and draw conclusions. Two main research approaches are most helpful for explaining the topic. The first approach includes results/findings form cognitive scientists that manipulate experimental conditions and test different theories among groups of subjects. One of the first experiments of this kind was Broadbent’s (1) dichotic listening experiment, where subjects attended two different auditory messages: one was directed to the left and another one to the right ear (1). He found that due to selective attention little or no information received in not attended ear was remembered. This one and other similar experiments highlight the role attention (2), memory and processing speed (3) and executive control (4) in multitasking activities.

Another research approach for explaining cognitive processes related to multitasking at work is analysis of particular jobs and their characteristic tasks. This could provide more specific explanations by relating particular tasks with specific cognitive processes. According to the Taxonomy of Multitasking, all multitasking activities at work could be categorized according to the following criteria:

· single or multiple activities multitasking;

· zero, single or multiple communicating;

· switching between tasks voluntary or interrupt driven, or both;

· compartmentalized or non-compartmentalized media (5).

Similar task analysis of real-life working situations was used to investigate multitasking activities among pilots (6), automobile drivers (7), nuclear power plant operators (8) and other professionals. Results from these studies confirm that multitasking activities at work involve prospective memory, automatic processing, and attention.

Multitasking activities may vary but as a minimum they always involve our memory and attention.

Below I would like to focus on two main cognitive processes, attention and memory, and their role in multitasking activities. Here we enter the territory of cognitive and neuroscience… Now it gets a little bit more complicated but very interesting!

The role of attention

In general attention is a very important basic cognitive function which controls or allocates processing resources. Since every individual has a pool of processing resources available, they can be allocated according to the task demands. In this context, individual’s ability to divide attention and to focus on relevant information by disregarding irrelevant information provides a good explanation what happens when we multitask (9). Let`s analyse some experiments explaining it.

During the classic laboratory experiment subjects perform a primary task which requires a response, and at the same time subjects receive a secondary task with additional specific information. It was observed during this experiment that in most cases as a result of simultaneous task performance, the performance on one or both tasks suffer a significant decrement. This decrement can be explained by the fact that two tasks must be performed simultaneously (2). It proves again that neither we are not truly multitasking just shifting our attention from one activity to the other.

A considerable amount of research analyzes multitasking during car driving, for example a cell phone use while driving automobile in a driving simulator (10). Researchers wanted to determine what information participants paid attention to while driving. Participants performed a simulated driving task and later they were given a surprise memory task where participants had to identify things they saw while driving. The difference between driving and driving while conversing on a cell phone condition estimates the degree to which visual information while driving is distracted by cell phone conversations. Results of the experiment proved that conversing on a phone disrupts the driver’s attention and creates so called inattention blindness which significantly reduced driver’s awareness of information in the driving scene.

Performing most work-related tasks require at least some degree of attentive processing, however complex and challenging tasks require focused attention. A research on airplane pilots’ multitasking confirmed, that in multitasking situations individuals relay a lot on attention and try to perform multiple tasks by employing different strategies (6). Apart from previously mentioned sequential and simultaneous task processing, these strategies also include reducing task demands by lowering criteria for quality, accuracy or completeness of performance (allows focusing on the most critical tasks), deferring one task until another task is performed and omitting one task.

Another group of scientists investigated the work of operators in one Canadian nuclear power plant. Subjects were monitoring various complex processes and their indicators in the control room in order to avoid catastrophic events. This real-world multitasking scenario creates a high demand to operators attention, however limitations of human attention makes operators work even more difficult (8). Three forms of attention are said to play an important role in monitoring tasks: focused attention, selective attention and divided attention. Focused attention was critical in situations when less important tasks were competing for operator’s attention. Selective attention participated in choosing which indicators to monitor and divided attention was important for simultaneously carrying out other tasks related to monitoring (i.e. answering maintenance requests). Results of the research confirmed that monitoring a nuclear power plant requires focus, selection and division of scarce cognitive resources, but in general monitoring tasks and associated difficulties greatly exceed the capacity of human attention, therefore it is not possible for employees to perform their work tasks using attentional resources alone.

Working and prospective memory

Scholars interested in cognitive correlates of multitasking also investigated what role memory plays in multitasking situations. In the current research literature at least two parts of memory (working memory and prospective memory) were shown to be involved in multitasking (11, 12, 3).

Working memory is a specific system that enables the storage and processing of information necessary for the execution of tasks. In order to complete a task, individuals must be able dynamically to retrieve, maintain, manipulate and update information in memory during a task performance. Although humans can store big amounts of information in long term memory, working-memory is limited and can store only few items at a time (13). Oberauer and colleagues (4) proved that working memory has three functional dimensions which are of a high importance in the multitasking situations:

· Storage in the context of processing — it helps to keep information in mind while at the same time other tasks are performed.

· Coordination is required when two tasks are executed, because these tasks should be coordinated and integrated in the general plan how to work on these tasks.

· Supervision monitors ongoing cognitive processes and actions and suppress irrelevant information, what might enhance task processing speed (9).

In their study König and colleagues (11) investigated the relation between working memory and multitasking. They found that working memory was an important predictor of multitasking performance in complex multitasking situations. Bühner and colleagues (9) extended the previous work by confirming that working memory with its three dimensions (storage in the context of processing, coordination, and supervision) plays an important role in multitasking performance. In addition, they found that coordination dimension predicted multitasking speed, and storage in the context of processing predicted multitasking errors.

Memory is a key for multitasking performance; We multitask more successfully if we well remember information during multitasking, carefully coordinate tasks and ignore irrelevant information

Although a relatively new topic in cognitive psychology, prospective memory offers some explanations about cognitive processes during multitasking. Prospective memory refers to remembering to perform an action that could not be executed when intention was formed (12). As it was discussed before delayed intentions are characteristic to multitasking behavior, since while alternating between tasks we need to remember those tasks that are deferred.

In experimental settings prospective memory is investigated according to the following procedure or its variations: at first participants are given an ongoing task, for example they must evaluate the pleasantness of a series of words displayed on a computer screen. Afterwards they receive a prospective memory task: if subjects notice a word, they should take a specified action — i.e. to press the enter key on a keyboard. In real- world multitasking situations Loukopoulos and colleagues (6) found out that during interruptions or deferred executions of tasks airplane pilots use prospective memory in order to continue with interrupted task or return to deferred task after other tasks are completed. Although their discussion was focused on aviation operation, comparable prospective memory tasks are also very likely to occur in other workplace settings


1. Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and Communication. Oxford: Pergamon.

2. Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Fall 15(1), 1–19.

3. Burgess, P. V., Quayle A. & Frith, C. D. (2009). Brain regions involved in prospective memory as determined by positron emission tomography. Neuropsychologia, 39, 545–555.

4. Oberauer, K., Süß, H.-M., Wilhelm, O., & Wittmann, W. W. (2003). The multiple faces of working memory: Storage, processing, supervision, and coordination. Intelligence, 31, 167–193.

5. Bannister, F. & Remenyi, D. (2009). Multitasking: the Uncertain Impact of Technology on Knowledge Workers and Managers. The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation, 12(1), 1–12.

6. Loukopoulos, L. D., Dismukes, K., & Barshi, I. (2009). The multitasking myth: handling complexity in real-world operations. Ashgate Publishing Limited: Farnham, London.

7. Strayer, D. L., & Drews, F. A. (2006). Multitasking in automobile. In: Kramer, A., Wiegman, D.& Kirlik, A. (Eds): Attention: From Theory to Practice. Oxford Psychology Press.

8. Vicente, K. J. (2006). Monitoring a nuclear power plant. In: A. Kramer, D. Wiegman, A. Kirlik (Eds): Attention: From Theory to Practice. Oxford Psychology Press.

9. Bühner, M., König, C., Pick, M., & Krumm, S. (2006). Working memory dimensions as differential predictors of the speed and error aspect of multitasking performance. Human Performance, 19, 253–275.

10. Strayer, D. L., & Drews, F. A. (2006). Multitasking in automobile. In: Kramer, A., Wiegman, D.& Kirlik, A. (Eds): Attention: From Theory to Practice. Oxford Psychology Press.

11. König, C. J., Bühner, M., Mürling, G. (2005). Working Memory, Fluid Intelligence, and Attention Are Predictors of Multitasking Performance, but Polychronicity and Extraversion Are not. Human performance, 18(3), 243–266.

12. Dismukes, k., & Nowinski, J. (2006). In: A. Kramer, D. Wiegman, A. Kirlik (Eds): Attention: From Theory to Practice. Oxford Psychology Press.

13. Berti, S., & Schröger, E. (2003). Working memory controls involuntary attention switching: evidence from an auditory distraction paradigm. European Journal of Neuroscience, 17 (5), 1119–1122

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