We live in an age of multitasking. But as researchers in France recently discovered, it is impossible—no matter the demands of job or family or the promise of technology—to handle more than two tasks at once.

The research, led by Sylvain Charron of the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in Paris, France; and Etienne Koechlin of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, also in Paris, used an fMRI to observe the left and right medial frontal cortex while performing several tasks in 32 patients.

The patients’ brains were observed in the fMRI while they completed a letter matching task. If they successfully completed the task, they received a monetary reward.

Charron and Koechlin found that when confronted with two tasks, the brain essentially divides itself and pursues the concurrent goals fairly efficiently with the anterior prefrontal cortex managing the tasks. While two tasks could be successfully completed, adding a third saw accuracy plummet, showing that the human brain can only handle two concurrent goals simultaneously.

The results of the study were published in the April 16 issue of Science. To learn more, see the research summary. 

(Source: Abstract)