Multitasking, Flow and the ACC


I just want to be very clear that I am not a doctor or an active researcher.  I am just a software engineer.  I do have a BS degree in the sciences major in psychology.  We did study the brain a bit in 4th year and even had a couple of labs where we trained with and dissected brains but beyond that most of what you are about to see below is just speculation based on things I found on the internets and my own musings.


You down with ACC?  Yeah, you know me. I was reading a post linked by a colleague the other day about multitasking killing our brain.  I have been reading a lot lately on the brain with respect to disorders and learning and the article took me in an interesting direction.  

First, to describe the article, they claim that humans are not good at multitasking, which I agree with to some extent, and that the frequent switching of multitaskers is actually problematic.  The short burst of dopamine that you receive from switching to something novel causes us to do this more and more often. In addition, the effects of multitasking cause changes in areas of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional control, the anterior cingulate cortex (or ACC) and can be permanent.

I found this really curious as I have been struggling a bit with attention as well lately.  I am coming at it from a slightly different angle however as I’ve realized that, at least for me, when I am engaging in very different tasks then I do have less ability to concentrate on one or the other.  For instance, the constant checking of your inbox will cause you to refocus on a very different task and interrupt the flow that you have had on the previous task. Refocusing will take less time if the email you are checking is more in line with your current flow task.  For instance, if you are working on a technical document and you get an email with some metrics describing your document that you had been expecting from a colleague you can almost mindlessly grab the numbers and start working them into the document that you are crafting.


Flow, or flow state is known as being in the zone.  If you are familiar with this you will probably know it as that feeling when your ideas are flowing effortlessly from one thought to another.  For my son, this is when he is playing a particularly engaging game or learning something new either on the computer, YouTube, in the workshop or wherever.  

For me, this used to be when I was programming or troubleshooting an interesting problem.  I say used to because it has been more difficult to attain lately. I have been trying to understand what has changed in my life or my brain here as this was a hugely enjoyable part of my life and I am missing it.  I am grateful that I still am able to obtain the state when I am doing research or writing code that does not compile (i.e. this document).

This has taken me down a few different paths of discovery.  I have found that I do flip back and forth between a number of different tasks and follow a lot of tangential thoughts.  This exploration might be considered a form of multitasking and the link between multitasking and the ACC has set me down exploration of that structure as a way to fix my flow.

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

When you look on Wikipedia you can see that the ACC is a small area in the frontal cortex, the coloured area on this image from Wikipedia:


The Wikipedia article lists a number of functions that the ACC is responsible for, the main ones I noted were:

  • Empathy and emotional control
  • Early learning and problem solving
  • Blood pressure and heart rate
  • Attention allocation
  • Reward anticipation
  • Decision making
  • Ethics and morality
  • Performance monitoring
  • Error detection

I also found a useful video covering the anterior cingulate cortex on YouTube if you prefer to listen while you read.  The article and video indicate that the functional areas seem quite diverse and there are a number of specialized cells that make the structure quite unique.  

My interest is more on the areas of attention allocation as it relates to performance monitoring, error detection and visualization.  I’ve since started baking a number of theories about how this area works and what it might be used for. These are just thoughts that have been rolling around in my head, the first is slightly backed up by trends I’ve seen in the technology industry, and the second is a bit of a wild, out there theory that you can discount as pure fantasy if you want.  

Another warning: It is also possible that I have read these in a book and just regurgitating those ideas.  I have tried to site the references I know I am using at the end of this post, if I have missed any then I have done so in error and will include them.

The first thought is that this area might be divided into a number of subcategories that might not always operate in unison.  Two separations might be flow (i.e. learning/ problem solving) and decision making. The contradiction of these tasks might be why email is so destructive to the flow experience.  The act of switching from a period of flow (i.e. problem-solving or learning) to an email can take a bit of time to recover from. In my own life, I have noticed that when I get a notification about an email pop up I am momentarily interrupted as I categorize the email and either make a mini-action plan or decide if it is an email that I can respond to later.  This interruption of flow can also be observed with the instant messenger feeds or texts received during the day as well. Texts that are higher in the ranking, often in terms of emotional response, cause a greater interrupt to that flow. This could be why technology companies are focusing so much on the health and wellness of employees. They have stumbled across this correlation: a happy employee is more productive.

The second thought rolling around is that this area is responsible for visualization.  I am thinking mostly about the effects of error detection and performance monitoring and interaction with visualization.  Visualization here could be interchangeably be used as the spiritual act of “sending thoughts to the universe” or the type of visualization that is needed to steer the direction of a large company or grande life plan.  The mechanism is essentially the same as it requires you to identify an overarching goal that you would like to accomplish and then break down that vision into a series of tasks that may or may not be related. The tasks are not all known at the onset and will vary over the lifetime of that vision.  They also require you to focus on both an overall goal that you would like to accomplish while simultaneously responding to feedback and correcting for a variance in the outcomes you expected in those tasks. We could possibly test the strength of this area by having someone focus on an overarching goal and measuring their ability to maintain adherence to that goal while simultaneously introducing larger variances in the error output of those subtasks.  This could be done by giving subjective feedback that was quite different than the expected outcome.

If the second is accurate a practical use of such a test might be to see how able an employee would be to fulfill a leadership role.  We would probably also want to consider areas of empathy in this area as well as you would not want to promote a tyrant into a leadership role who would close a country’s borders purely based on ethnic or political origin.

Anyway, definitely, a lot more digging I need to do in this area.  One of the interesting things I did discover on this journey is a feature called “scholar” on Google.  The feature surfaces scientific articles and has given me more confidence that the Wikipedia articles and YouTube I found are legitimate.  I’ll poke around a bit more to see if there are research activities going on that are looking into visualization.  If you’d like to poke around on something you are interested in as well here is the link:

Side Notes


Atrophy in this area could be explained differently if you consider that it might be used for visualization and our shared representation of the world.  If you spend less time carrying these visualizations out you will find that this area will shrink.  This can get pretty touchy-feely with our current view of the brain and consciousness but if you consider the focus on mindfulness and meditation in our western culture then it does lead some more credence to this thought.  If you are more mindful you can cultivate this area more, you obtain a higher level of focus in your daily tasks and you are generally are able to have and carry out these visualizations in a more consistent manner, both in meditation and in life.


One Comment on “Multitasking, Flow and the ACC

  1. Pingback: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart | Clayton Harbour

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