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Multitasking is harder if you're neurotic

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Everybody multitasks. But while some seem to juggle multiple jobs standing on their head, others battle to do even two things at once.

New research from Brunel University London suggests personality affects our ability to multitask, making some people more prone to struggle when jobs pile up.

For highly neurotic people, multitasking causes a genuine stress response that reduces their ability to successfully complete more than one undemanding but pressing task at a time.

In the first study of its kind, a team of Brunel scientists looked at the impact of being neurotic on multitasking. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants’ brains when doing two simple tasks at once rather than one after the other.

The results showed everybody was slower and made more mistakes when multitasking but this was pronounced for highly neurotic people. Their brain scans showed less activity in areas linked to doing dual-tasks – the areas that resolve bottlenecks in our brain’s processing of thoughts.

Dr Andre J. Szameitat, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Brunel University London led the research. He said: “It is well-known that neuroticism impairs the brain’s ability to do difficult tasks but this is the first study to look at its impact on doing simple things at the same time. True multitasking is challenging for everyone because we all have bottlenecks in our minds which prevent us from doing two tasks at the same time.

“However, the stress neurotic people experience when faced with multitasking works against their brain’s ability to deal with these bottlenecks. In particular for those prone to neuroticism, a better approach would be to give individual tasks complete attention and do one thing at a time. ”