Can We Get Better at Multitasking?

Life really does come at us fast these days, forcing us to repeatedly engage in a diabolical process that has come to be known as multitasking. Put away whatever you were doing seconds ago and switch to a new challenge, or maybe two or three.

It's not something we do all that well, but it is becoming an increasingly important part of our lives. Scientists in many institutions are trying to understand what goes on in that complex electromechanical device that sits between our ears when we are suddenly asked to switch gears.

Can we learn how to do it better? Are some of us better at it than others? Are we better at it at different times of the day?

So many questions. So few answers.

But there is progress. One study that has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences nails down the evidence that some areas of the brain are especially critical to multitasking, but it apparently doesn't work the way many had expected.

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Researchers at Yale University performed brain scans on 20 volunteers to see what happens in their brains when confronted with multitasking. It turns out that several areas of the brain that are known to be important for cognitive control were highly active during successful completion of multitasking.

But they didn't light up because of the demand to switch gears.

"They didn't necessarily respond, or increase their activity, because multitasking had to be done," said Andrew Leber, an author of the study, who is now assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. "It was more the other way around."

The functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans show that participants could do well if those areas of the brain were already at peak performance when the task was presented. If activity there was low, they did less well. So those areas of the brain (the basal ganglia, anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex) are enablers, not just responders.

Leber said there was significant fluctuations in activity in all regions of the brain throughout the 30-minute scan. That's "normal," he said. But those critical regions showed high activity just before multitasking among the participants who did well, and less activity among those who did less well. The difference was "subtle," he added, but significant.

The preliminary findings suggest that it may be possible to predict when an individual is best equipped to do multitasking, and then schedule events accordingly. Do your dull paperwork when those areas are at rest, and take on multiple challenges when they are up for the task.

Of course, in the real world, most things are not that easily scheduled. Just try telling the boss that you've scheduled his demands for sometime after lunch. Or before breakfast.

So don't look for any firm recommendations anytime soon, but the research does shed light on why multitasking is easier some times than others. Sometimes, the gun isn't loaded.

This is a relatively new area for scientific research, but new ideas trickle in fairly frequently. For example:

Leber said there are "hints" in various research projects that "bilinguals seem to be better at things that are related to multitasking."

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