Can We Get Better at Multitasking?

Scientists shed light on why multitasking is easier at some times than others.

Sept. 3, 2008— -- 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.

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."

"In order to multitask you need to suppress the old task and move on to a new task, a process that's called 'inhibitory processing.' Bilinguals have a lot of practice at switching back and forth between frames of reference, especially as they go from work to home, speaking a native language vs English. You can call that multitasking."

Does that suggest it might be possible for persons to train their mind to be better at multitasking?"

"Absolutely," Leber said. But it's not clear yet exactly how.

Not all multitasks have been created equal. The scientific literature is crammed with studies indicating that you really should stay off your cell phone when driving a car. Steve Yantis of Johns Hopkins University explained why in the Journal of Neuroscience.

"Directing attention to listening effectively ' turns down the volume' on input to the visual parts of the brain," Yantis said. In other words, it's hard to listen and look at the same time, but that's particularly true if the sound is from another person and is directed specifically at you, according to other studies.

Researchers at Cornell University found that there's little problem with listening to the car radio, but if two people are talking to you at the same time, pull over to the side of the road. It seems that when two streams of stimuli are similar in type -- as in two kids yelling from the back seat -- it's much more difficult to drive the car than if the only noise is from the radio, or from one other person.

With more and more research, we might someday know how to improve our abilities to do two things at once, and possibly even figure out when to schedule those most difficult tasks for the periods when our cognitive control systems are at their peak.

But it's doubtful we will ever be able to get those kids to shut up when we're approaching a dangerous intersection.