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  • With life getting more demanding and hectic all the time, it seems there's only one way to cope - multitasking!

  • Gurus and life hackers make a living telling us how to get better at it.

  • But can we actually multitask?

  • The term was first used in the '60s, to describe computer performance.

  • The human brain, though, is not a computer and human attention is a very limited resource.

  • Some psychologists model visual attention as being like a spotlight.

  • It can only be shone in one direction at any one time.

  • Our primary focus - what we're paying most attention to - is like the brightly lit area in the centre of the beam.

  • It can also be understood as being like a zoom lens - we can choose to narrow our focus to concentrate in detail, or widen it, to be aware of more things simultaneously.

  • But we can't be zoomed in and out at the same time.

  • Even though we're constantly receiving a huge amount of information from our senses, it's only possible for a small amount to make it through to conscious awareness.

  • Watch the next section very carefully, and pay particular attention to how many balls bounce in the circle.

  • How many can you count?

  • Seven, right?

  • But did you also notice that little dinosaur?

  • What about the changing shape of the circle?

  • Or the smiley face on one of the balls?

  • This shows just how powerful focused attention is.

  • Being able to filter out irrelevant detail is an amazingly useful tool, but it means we can miss things that are right under our noses - an effect known as inattention blindness.

  • You can see this very clearly in the famous Invisible Gorilla experiment.

  • When asked to concentrate exclusively on how often basketball players in white pass the ball, most people completely miss the gorilla walking across the screen and beating his chest.

  • We just don't have the capacity to process everything at once.

  • This is a particular problem when we try to multitask.

  • We can switch attention from one task to another and back again.

  • But when attention is overloaded, we miss things, and the result is nearly always that we perform tasks less well than we would doing them one at a time.

  • It's only truly possible to do two things at once if they require different sets of cognitive resources.

  • For example, it's totally possible to read a book and listen to music at the same time.

  • Which would suggest that driving while talking on the phone is not a problem, as long as it's a hands-free phone.

  • It's not that simple though.

  • Research has shown that while talking on the phone, we have a tendency to create mental images, and this uses the same visual resources needed for driving.

  • And if visual resources become too stretched, it's perfectly possible for a driver to look directly at a hazard but, just like with that little dinosaur, fail to see it.

  • Not everything will make it through to conscious awareness.

  • So multitasking makes us at best, inefficient, and at worst, downright dangerous.

  • If you're feeling like you should be doing 17 things at once, remember, that's just not the way your brain is wired.

  • Thanks for watching.

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With life getting more demanding and hectic all the time, it seems there's only one way to cope - multitasking!

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