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September 15, 2020
by Patricia Tomasi

Is The Brain Able To Multitask Efficiently?

September 15, 2020 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

Are you a great multitasker? According to research studies, only two per cent of the population is actually proficient at multitasking. Considered an asset, especially in the workforce, studies are now finding that multitasking actually accounts for a 40 per cent drop in productivity, costing the U.S. economy $650 billion annually. It also results in a 10 per cent drop in IQ.

But there are some of us that can do it successfully. So what makes the two per cent of the population who can multitask efficiently different from the rest of us?

A new study published in eNeuro looked at the brain and multitasking to get a better sense of where in the brain these functions occur.

“Previous consideration of the networks that underpin multitasking have focused on the neocortex,” study author Dr. Kelly Garner told us. “However, there are lots of theoretical reasons to think that deeper brain structures, such as the striatum, could be important.”

Studies have shown that our brain can’t handle more than one task at a time and that though we think we are multitasking, our brain is actually rapidly firing between tasks. After checking email, it took a quarter of an hour for employees in one study to get back to doing intense mental tasks like writing reports.

Dr. Garner and the research team tested the idea of deeper brain structures and multitasking by examining how 'coupling' between the striatum and the neocortex changes with multitasking and improvements due to practice. Coupling can be thought of as how activity in one brain region affects the rate of change in the activity of its coupled brain region. Dr. Garner says they take this as a proxy of the extent to which two brain regions could be sharing information with each other.

“We knew that if coupling between the striatum and the neocortex was not influenced by multitasking or multitasking practice, then it was unlikely to be an important part of the underlying brain network,” Dr. Garner told us. “However, if it did change, then this is a clue that the striatum should be included in the set of brain regions we consider to be important for multitasking.”

Research has found that it takes more time to accomplish tasks while multitasking. Studying the brain and multitasking can have many positive implications as we learn how and where to strengthen this highly desirable trait.

“I have always been fascinated by how practice makes not only our bodies but also our brains function better, and I think that understanding how this happens could have big benefits for individuals and for society,” Dr. Garner told us. “With regard to this specific study, it was a chance to empirically test whether we should be broadening our concepts and our language around the brain areas that support multitasking.”

Researchers applied a modelling technique that quantifies how much coupling changes between brain regions. They tested whether couplings changed when people multitasked, and when their practice improved multitasking. They compared models that only allowed coupling changes within the neocortex, or those that allowed coupling changes between the striatum and neocortex, to see which fared better in predicting the brain images they recorded when people multitasked in the scanner.

“We found that brain imaging data, recorded when people multitask before and after practice, was best predicted by models that allowed coupling changes between the striatum and the neocortex,” Dr. Garner told us. “I don't think the results are a huge surprise, given the theory that led us to test the hypothesis. I think they are important because they make the point empirically, that we need to think beyond the neocortex when investigating multitasking in the human brain.”

Dr. Garner believes there is a lot more to be discovered about exactly how the striatum contributes to multitasking performance.

“We'll be looking at this in our future studies using high resolution imaging and drug interventions that affect how the striatum functions.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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