Previous research has indicated how dangerous and inefficient multitasking can be. However, a new brain imaging study led by a neuroscientist at the University of New Hampshire finds that there are optimal times when we are better suited to multitask.
In the study, Andrew Leber, assistant professor of psychology at UNH, explains how the brain can act as a crystal ball to predict when people are efficient multitaskers.
“We typically sacrifice efficiency when we multitask. However, there are times when we’re quite good at it. Unfortunately, not much has been known about how to predict when these periods will occur,” Leber said.
While having the study participants multitask, Leber and his colleagues monitored their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research confirmed that multitasking is, on average, inefficient. However, the brain scans allowed the researchers to predict when people would be poor multitaskers and optimal multitaskers.
Most dramatically, the changes in performance were preceded by changes in the participants’ brain activity patterns.
“What is so striking about this result is that brain activity predicted multitasking performance before participants even knew whether they would be asked to switch or repeat tasks,” Leber said.
Being able to predict when people are in optimal multitasking states raises tantalising prospects for maximising productivity in our daily lives, according to Leber. Ideally, we should reserve task juggling for known periods of optimal multitasking while doing repetitive tasks during known periods of poor multitasking.
Yet, while the brain imaging results reflect a critical step in helping us to better schedule our daily routine, they don’t provide a truly practical solution quite yet.
“Obviously, the average person can’t bring an fMRI scanner to work,” Leber said. “It may take more time before our research translates to real-world benefits for each of us.”
Nevertheless, he believes that the current study represents a promising start.
“The fact that we are able to so rapidly switch from one task to another is no accident of nature, as it reflects an enhanced capacity to flexibly interact with our environment. And, it’s to our benefit to exercise this remarkable skill from time to time, although the key might be to keep it in moderation,” he said.
Leber, A. B., Turk-Browne, N. B. & Chun, M. M. (2008). Neural predictors of moment-to-moment fluctuations in cognitive flexibility. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 13592–13597.