Update, Game Example
Just found this wonderful Kongregate Multitask Game thanks to Eli and Phil for the find. A game is worth a thousand words in explaining our limited ability to multitask.
I'll be the first to admit complex, precision tasks require our full concentration. But what about the other activities we do daily? They're important, but there are only so many hours in a day. When we discover work we love, we become caught in an endless game of tradeoffs of our personal lives, our work/business, or our health. It comes down to limited resource allocation for a large population. The vast majority of us aren't given a blank check at birth. If we want to create something of social/business value we have to work hard.
Why We Suck at Multitasking
Unfortunately it turns out humans are terrible at multitasking. "Our brain is lousy at handling multitasking situations", according to neuroscientist René Marois of Vanderbilt University. Rene Marois explains even for simple tasks, "as soon as either needs concentration, we can't do them both without our performance suffering". There's a traffic jam in the way our brain processes incoming information, based on supporting neuroimaging evidence. The arduous lab work and analysis behind "Training Improves Multitasking Performance by Increasing the Speed of Information Processing in Human Prefrontal Cortex" was done by Paul E. Dux, Michael N. Tombu, Stephenie Harrison, Baxter P. Rogers, Frank Tong and René Marois.
The quality of our activities, and our resulting productivity drop off drastically as we introduce even a single extra simultaneous task where at least one of them requires our attention. You may say, "but Mark, I can walk and chew gum at the same time, aren't I the exception?".
The secret to multitasking, practice!
A curious discovery from the neuroscientists article summary,
Here, we show that the reduction of multitasking interference with training is not achieved by diverting the flow of information processing away from the prefrontal cortex or by segregating prefrontal cells into independent task-specific neuronal ensembles, but rather by increasing the speed of information processing in this brain region, thereby allowing multiple tasks to be processed in rapid succession.
Their tests show that the brain doesn't create new routing or manifest isolated specialized processing hubs. What happens when we practice something often enough is that we can process the information much faster. The inferior frontal junction (IFJ) has a faster reaction time to stimuli, and activates for a shorter duration. This shows both improved response and processing of stimuli (thanks to Lizzie Buchen of naturenews for explaining this simply).
When we practice activities enough, so that they become second nature or innate to us, we achieve a greater ability to process other stimuli in rapid succession (multitask). Hence, "auto pilot activities" allows several things to be done at once, while heavy/new situations require our full attention. I've been taking advantage of this recently while walking and reading my rss feeds and social media shares. As long as I'm not crossing intersections I can multitask fairly safely.
From Nature (high level description), How brain training makes multitasking easier
From Neuron (research paper), Training Improves Multitasking Performance by Increasing the Speed of Information Processing in Human Prefrontal Cortex
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- Multitasking ability can be improved through training (scienceblog.com)
- The Myth of Multitasking (scientificamerican.com)