The Neuroscience Behind Multitasking and Mindfulness

The Neuroscience Behind Multitasking and Mindfulness

Ever wonder what the secret is to great multitasking?

Maybe you’re already good at it, or maybe it’s an area you’d like to improve.

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A popular trait touted by today’s younger workforce, multitasking skills are often revered as an indicator of productivity, organization and efficiency. However, while switching between tasks, does anything get lost in the shuffle? Being flexible and able to readjust focus quickly is great, but is multitasking really the answer to getting more done and doing it well?

To answer these questions, it’s worth considering the neuroscience happening in your brain when you multitask and how multitasking affects and is affected by mindfulness.

The Brain’s Attentional System

First, you must understand that the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Simply put, multitasking happens when your brain is switching back and forth between competing items. Your brain is not focusing on both items continuously at the same time, rather, it shifts attention between them, much like a searchlight rotates to illuminate whatever it is directed to.

The parts of the brain responsible for controlling the attentional system are:

  • Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex – directs your attention and intentional focus
  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex – provides the attentional capability/power

Combined, these two sections of your brain make up the attentional “searchlight” that lets you focus on one or multiple competing things at a time.

Mindfulness Techniques Improve Focus

If you have trouble staying focused on one thing, or struggle with switching between tasks or multitasking, exercises in mindful meditation and breathing techniques are beneficial. By practicing mindfulness, you can strengthen your attentional searchlight to better direct and sustain focus.

Mindful breathing techniques involve focusing on taking deep, slow breathes while ignoring distractions and intrusive thoughts. While it may be difficult to cut out these stimuli at first, with practice you will be able to control your reactions and direct your attention where you intend. How, exactly? Exercising your conscious focus strengthens the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which actually grows and expands synaptic strength.

Is Multitasking the Answer?

So, your brain can focus on one thing at a time and you can practice mindfulness exercises to strengthen its ability to shift focus and concentrate, but are better multitasking skills the right goal? It depends.

By improving your brain’s ability to focus better on one thing at a time without distractions, you increase the chances of compelting a task more thoroughly and quickly. Working more efficiently eliminates some need to multitask, as time is freed up to move from one thing to the next. As you’re moving more quickly between tasks, completing them one by one rather than circling back around, the need to multitask could take a backseat.

The Benefits of Sustained Focus

Along with working more quickly and efficiently, strengthening your focus through mindful breathing gives you the freedom to escape from everyday stressors such as dwelling on the negative, worrying, anxious thoughts and obsessive thought patterns. Rather than being a victim of your thoughts, you can take control and direct where your energies go.

To learn more about mindfulness techniques or schedule a session, feel free to call our Denver office at 720-295-4233 or simply click below.


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