Multi-tasking Overwhelms the Control Centre

By Gaynor Bussell

The control network, as the name implies, is the area of the brain responsible for controlling people’s ability to align their behaviour with their goals. It is activated when people weigh long-term consequences, check their impulses, and selectively focus their attention.

It is the part of the brain most affected by multitasking and the unstructured, continuous, fractured nature of modern work is a tremendous burden on this control network. Making it consume a huge amount of the brain’s energy. The resulting mental fatigue takes its toll in the form of mistakes, shallow thinking, and impaired self-regulation. When overwhelmed, the control network literally loses control, and our behaviour is then driven by immediate, situational cues instead of shaped with our priorities in mind. We go on autopilot, and our brains fall back to simply responding to whatever is in front of us, regardless of its importance.

Interestingly, it is this part of the brain that also controls our eating behaviour, when the control is gone, we grab any sort of junk food to eat, hungry or not. Apparently the brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Although the brain appears to be able to multitask, e.g. you can walk and talk at the same time and the brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book, the brain’s attentional ability is not capable of multitasking. As an example, studies using neuro-imaging, have demonstrated the areas of the brain used to drive a car show a 37% decrease in activity when also listening to someone speak. This is why researchers are calling for a total ban on mobile phone use while driving.

Come and hear me talk more about the effects multi-tasking have on our work performance and how working in an Agile way is the best solution. Agile Cymru conference, Cardiff, 7/8 July, 2015.