By now, you may have heard that multitasking isn’t something that people are naturally good at. Or perhaps you’ve figured it out the hard way. When your attention is divided among tasks, your performance on each task suffers. But studies have shown that training and practice can make you a better multitask-er, and now science has shown what happens in the brain.
Training can improve your multitasking ability
When it comes to doing multiple activities at once, the problem comes from how quickly your brain can process different information. No matter how well you think you are accomplishing simultaneous activities, you are doing different things and your brain needs to think about them separately. And, interestingly, you can’t even accurately judge how well you are multitasking while you are doing it, because the same part of your brain that monitors performance is being compromised by the tasks.
Since the limitation comes from being unable to process information quickly enough, this is where you can make improvements through training. A previous study has shown that training can improve the speed at which you can process tasks. Thus, if you train at one particular task, you will perform better at it in a multitasking scenario.
Co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University René Marois explained, “Our results imply that the fundamental reason we are lousy multitaskers is because our brains process each task slowly, creating a bottleneck at the central stage of decision making. Practice enables our brain to process each task more quickly through this bottleneck, speeding up performance overall.”
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Research shows the brain divides processing power
The more recently published study looks at an aspect that was previously unknown: what happens in the brain after you are trained for multitasking.
The researchers made participants perform a multitasking activity, such as pushing a button when one of two shapes appeared or when one of two sounds is played, and then scanned the participant’s brain by fMRI. Then the participants were split into two groups, where one group practiced the individual activities for three days and the other group trained for an unrelated activity involving spatial recognition. After practicing the activities, the participants performed the multitasking activity again while being monitored by fMRI imaging.
The brain scans showed that there was more distinct task processing occurring in the participants who trained with the activity compared to the participants who did not practice. This means that their brains became better at focusing on the individual tasks, which in turn made them better at multitasking.
“We used this term of ‘divide and conquer’… so people who have more separate representations in these executive brain regions did better at multi-tasking with training, but only if they did the proper training,” says Professor Paul Dux, co-author of the study and Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia.
How to multitask like a pro
One caveat of the research is that it is unclear whether participants became better at multitasking in general. It could be dependent on the individual tasks involved.
For now, though, we can use this information to try to prepare for times when multitasking is required. This would require practicing individual tasks and becoming highly proficient before attempting to do another activity at the same time.