digital brain

Brain Limits

I’ve heard you can’t really multi-task, despite people who claim they can.

I don’t entirely agree. I can do more than one thing at a time, but only to a point. For example, I can perform simple familiar tasks, like washing dishes, while thinking about something I’m writing or intend to write. And listening to a news program. In fact, I need to have some sort of mental input while doing manual work, even something like sewing, which is not simple or familiar.

But there are limits. I’ve tested them.

First, let me describe the usual scenario in my writing and blogging space. There’s the computer, with a bunch of weather-related tabs open, plus WordPress, plus Goodreads and a few others. Also email, of course. There’s an old-fashioned mini-stereo setup behind and to one side of the computer. It can play CDs and even cassette tapes, although it’s hardly ever called upon to do that. Mostly it’s a radio, and if I’m at the computer, it’s always on, cranking out music, news, or a current affairs program. Sometimes there’s music on the radio and at the same time a podcast on the computer, talking to me through one earbud. And as well as listening, I’m reading blog posts, or even writing one.

multitasking head media colourful
Image from Pixabay

Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to work. Is it multi-tasking? No. It’s sequential tasking. The old brain can deal with only one or perhaps two of these inputs at a time. The music seems to seep through the other stuff, but if it fully engages my attention, I disengage from the other tasks so I can listen properly. Otherwise, I’m taking in and focussing on only the words I’m reading, writing, or listening to, for sequential short intervals. I have to admit, I miss a lot of details of the radio programs while paying attention to blog posts or whatever I’m writing. Quite often, my attention is caught by the host thanking the interviewee or announcing the performer, having missed whatever was said, played, or sung. Annoying, but there it is.

When this input-juggling is working well, I can actually get things read or written and switch focus in time to get something out of whatever I’m listening to. It’s not the best way to absorb information, but it’s the only way I’ve come up with to keep up with the blogs I follow and what’s going on in the world, as well as creating blog posts and other writings.

Maybe this is why by the end of the day I don’t trust myself to write comments on people’s blog posts. The brain is worn out!

A final thought: if a long writing session is too challenging, a five-minute one jammed in between other mental tasks is manageable. Several such sessions actually produce visible results. Note: I don’t write first drafts of novels this way; that’s a whole other process!

Ideal combinations:

  • manual work + informative radio program
  • reading blogs + informative radio program or music
  • reading fiction + music
  • writing + music

Ideally, only two inputs at a time, you notice.

On the other hand, I don’t watch anything. At all. Well, maybe the odd video, but only if it’s a short one. No TV, no streaming. I read a lot of books. I do this reading away from the computer and even the radio, mainly during meals and before going to sleep.

Fellow bloggers, how do you avoid brain overload? Do any of you multitask?

65 comments

    1. Spend some time with yourself… Do your favourite activities… Pls don’t use smartphone or any smart devices… Disconnect yourself from internet… Read books… Do mental, Breathing & physical exercises….

      Liked by 2 people

  1. As a mother raising children, looking after older parents, working full time, volunteering, sitting on a number of boards and taking various courses, you bet I multi-tasked and I did it well. Would I recommend it? Not really. I got a lot done in a day but I was always tired, picked up all kinds of viruses, and suffered from stress. Since I’ve retired and moved to a quiet little corner of Spain, I try to do only one big thing a day. It’s wonderful and I’m still getting things done, and it’s mostly things I want to do.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ah! The magic word retirement. I refuse to get out of bed these winter mornings if it’s still dark outside. Then the hard choices, which cereal for breakfast. That takes care of the morning. Obviously the afternoon means a good rest from such a strenuous morning. A little daytime television followed by dinner. Then a bit of a nap followed by a few beers. Finally, totally exhausted, I drag my worn out carcass up the stairs to bed. It’s a tough life, but somebody has to live it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I was good at multi-tasking when I was working, but I got more accomplished by focusing on one thing at a time. Now, I try to avoid multi-tasking if I can. The only combination the works for me is manual work + informative radio program or music.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Anything that requires thinking I do one at a time, like reading or writing. To make sure I’m not thinking about anything else (like needing to leave for an appointment in 1 hour), I set a timer. But manual labor and a news program work well for me. Driving and singing do too (which accounts for the strange looks I get from other drivers at stoplights).

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think your description of sequential tasking is likely what most people do rather than actual simultaneous multi-tasking.

    All I know is that I need distractions to focus on the primary task, which is why there are always other things going on. The best example for me is from law school. I tried studying in a library and the quiet drove me absolutely crazy. I was far better at studying in the student center where I could people watch while studying.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right, Mark–some of us seem to need a certain level of distraction to stick with a mentally demanding task. Kind of ironic, but it’s true. I think my switching from one task to another prevents me from major distractions.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If you imagine our brains as CPUs, which they very nearly model, you can consider the technique CPUs use to “multi-task”. Specifically, a single core CPU can process one instruction at a time. Or, a batch of instructions in a division of time. To “seemingly” accomplish N tasks at a time, CPUs will context switch, but do so so quickly that we cannot tell the difference.
    If you remember old 386 or 486 PCs, sometimes you’d click a button and the screen would freeze. That’s the single CPU trying to do a very complex task and, whichever program is controlling the CPU at the time, refuses to relinquish control.
    Many older programming languages had concepts built in that would effectively say to the CPU “do your thing for .01 of a second, but I’m still in control.” During that .01 second, the CPU would give the mouse and keyboard and screen a chance to update.

    All of this is to say, our prefrontal cortex can do one thing at a time, but, we can context switch (but not as well as a CPU). However, like a Graphics Processing Unit (what drives the monitor), we have other brain parts, motor cortex, which can rake leaves, wash dishes, mow lawns, knit, drive a car, etc. all on their own with only seldom correction from our CPU. Hell, we breathe and our heart beats without direct instruction.

    I can’t context switch well anymore. If I have nonverbal music playing, I can — infrequently these days — get into the zone when writing or coding. I’m guessing the audio drones out other noises that would interrupt my minuscule attention span.

    Now, if I had a second CPU core, a Neural-Implant maybe…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Are brains like CPUs, or is it the other way around? Were computers designed to function like brains? Or do they just have some things in common?
      Getting in the zone–that’s the place to be when doing something creative, but it’s impossible to force it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. HI Audrey, I to can multitask with limits. If I am listening to training videos, I like to set up my twitter posts as that doesn’t require much concentration. I can’t read blog posts though as those I must focus on. I listen to audio books when I drive to routine places (not new places as then I have to focus on the route), bake, do fondant art, or cook. I like to rest my brain when I walk or exercise these days. That is when I write my poetry in my head. It comes when my brain is quiet and relaxed.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I think this is the problem with modern life. There is never any mental down time for people to think and that is why they are not innovative anymore (my personal opinion). You need peace and time gazing at the clouds to make leaps of thought and innovation.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have recently discovered how much I love writing or reading with music in the background, but have found that trying to experience more than two things usually throws me off and distracts me. ❀

    Liked by 2 people

  8. A great post with many great points, Audrey! I can only do one creative thing at a time with any efficiency. If I’m listening to music while writing, I tune out the music; it’s as if it isn’t there. But, as mentioned, listening to something while performing “manual” labor is totally doable. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  9. If I’m doing a mundane chore that doesn’t require much concentration, I can multitask, but I think many people can do this better than I do. Regarding reading and writing, I don’t do well with other noises, such as music, television, or people talking. I taught kids who could read and block out all the background noise that often happens in a classroom. I envy others that have this ability.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. People seem to have different ways of approaching mental tasks. Some actually need a certain level of sounds in the environment, while others do best in total quiet. I’m sure you saw a range of these needs when you were teaching.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Multi-tasking … it depends on how well ingrained one task is that it allows other tasks to be front and centre.
    Consider driving – once we’re comfortable with all the bits and bobs, we don’t think about it consciously (unless something goes wrong) which allows us to plan a route, or listen to music/aBook, or to converse with other people in the car. We can daydream, sing, or plan a menu, and all because the physical aspect of driving is second-nature.
    Any of the things I can do without thinking about them (driving, gardening, washing dishes, etc.) allow room for other tasks – and yes, I have balanced the books while gardening (the thinking time without staring at the physical object makes it easier to envision).
    Some of this comes from when my uncle taught me to play chess in my mind, and to carry the moves in my head until I next saw him. It took years to complete a game the first time, but over time, it became second nature.
    And I often planned, structured, or beat out story problems when walking the dog – she didn’t mind me talking (of course, I was talking to her, wasn’t I?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems you have a capable, well-exercised brain! I’m especially impressed by the mental chess games. And some physical tasks are especially helpful as background to creative thoughts. Like all those great ideas one gets in the shower, or with dirty hands and not a pen & paper within reach.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know someone who has a divers pen to scribble notes on the glass shower panels. And gardeners (me, especially) always have a pencil to note what they put where, even if it’s a carpenters pencil – and writing on a fence or the side of the wheelbarrow … all fair game to an idea spark or flash of inspiration. Any surface in a moment of need, I say.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. My multi-tasking is limited. Like you, I can do household chores or prepare a meal while thinking about writing, usually with the TV on as white noise, though I’m not paying close attention. Writing of all types is carried out in silence, but I’ll read others’ blogs and newsletters with some other noise on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Everyone finds their own optimal combination for different tasks, it seems. Unless I’m carried away by inspiration, writing a new piece of fiction is a challenge for me. Sometimes a long writing session with nothing else going on feels like too much, but I can do a short session and then read a blog post. The brain works in mysterious ways!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Never been a good multi-tasker, sadly. I can’t cope with music while I read – each distracts from the other. I can just about do audiobooks and housework together, but I still find that I miss bits of the books, presumably when I have to engage my brain on some task or other. Silence is necessary for blogging – writing or reading. I can listen to the news while doing basic admin on the computer, though! And I could tickle the cat’s ears while reading if only I could persuade him not to chew the corner of the book…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Music in the background? Absolutely, but πŸ™‚ classical and instrumental only, If I hear voices they intrude and interrupt. I guess that’s part of our species ‘programming’, πŸ™‚ the need to pay attention to the other humans just in case they need us/want to kill us/etc. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Great post, Audrey! I /need/ the tv going while I cook, mostly because I get so bored waiting for this or that to boil or braise or whatever. If I don’t watch/listen to the tv, I wonder off to my office – just for a minute or two! – and ten minutes later something has burned to a crisp. 😦
    Oddly enough, I must have music while I’m writing, but only as a kind of mood maker/white noise. Can’t listen to music while I’m doing logical stuff like tech posts.
    And, of course, everything takes more energy these days. -sigh- Ageing is such fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m surprised I can get things done with all the extra inputs, but when I need to concentrate I can filter them out. Lots of times I find myself thinking “Darn, too bad I missed 99% of that interview!”
      My rule is never leave the kitchen when something is cooking on top of the stove. My husband has no such rule, so relies on hearing the timer or the pot lid clinking. Fortunately we haven’t had any fires. πŸ˜ƒ

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My office is right next to the kitchen, and I usually remember to set the timer but…sometimes I get so involved in whatever I’m doing, I literally don’t hear it. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve burnt my porridge…and the pot. No fires but I know I have to stop becoming distracted or one day there will be one.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Hammering and engaging blog post Audrey. I have to say I really understood what you depict here in terms of multitasking. I agree that as humans we can only handle 2 inputs or workload at a time unlike robots that are programmed to act and do many tasks without them getting exhausted.

    Moreover, sequential tasking I love the term you came up here. As a fashion blogger I really use or focus on 2 things at a time and if I am overloaded with writing I pause and continue the next day.

    This means that I really can’t do 3 things because I have one brain and two hands. I suggest taking regular breaks if there is a lot on your plate or else you will experience a burnout πŸ‘

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This one had me thinking, Audrey. If I’m reading, I can’t listen to anything, but DIY projects – even those that require concentration – I like to listen to podcasts, and can generally multitask practical jobs, progressing several things at the same time. Writing is a strange one – I can’t listen to any sort of music, but repetitive machinery works wonders. I used to work in a factory where there was always a noise of some sort or other – which may explain this peculiarity.

    Thanks for that recent review, by the way. It was very much appreciated, and I’m glad you liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did enjoy The Singing Loch, Michael. Parts of it were quite movie-like.
      Quite a range of responses to this week’s topic. Some need silence for writing, whereas others find that oppressive. It probably depends on what conditions one has adapted to, as you say.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Over the years I manage to multi-task a lot of the time but NEVER when writing! Then it has to be quiet, with no music, radio and definitely no TV or constant interruptions. Working as an administration manager multi-tasking was a given, mostly a lot of fun but at times stressful! An interesting and thought-provoking post, Audrey!

    Liked by 2 people

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