If you think you're a great multitasker, you're probably not - unless you belong to the tiny 2 percent fraction of the population who are deemed 'supertaskers', capable of carrying out multiple tasks without losing points on performance and making mistakes.
The rest of us just spend our time flitting between tabs, or driving while talking on the phone, under the naive impression that we’re multitasking like a boss. Even though human brains have enormous processing power, true multitasking is a rare beast, and difficult to achieve. Lab tests have shown that we get an illusion of multitasking as we switch between various tasks with lightning speed, making it appear as though the processes are actually happening in parallel.
But, as it turns out, we're not all doomed to remain multi-incapable. Research over the past few years has shown that you can actually get better at multitasking if you receive some training for the particular task at hand, and repeat it over and over.
Until recently, scientists weren't exactly sure why this is the case, but researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have made significant progress towards finding the answer. "Previous work has demonstrated that our ability to multitask can be improved over time with training, but the neural mechanisms that drive this adaption have not been understood," said psychologist Paul Dux.
The researchers undertook a brain imaging study involving 100 participants. They had to perform classic tasks used in cognitive processing tests to determine multitasking capability: push a button when one of two shapes on the screen flashes, or alternatively when one of two sounds is played.
These tasks are super-easy to do on their own, but the trick lies in trying to do them simultaneously. Performance is then measured based on the amount of mistakes people make, and the time it takes to complete these tasks - which is always longer if they have to be done together. The participants also had to do these tasks while being scanned in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine.
Next, the participants were divided into two groups - one received multitasking training over the space of three days, doing the tasks over and over again, while the others were trained in an unrelated, spatial reasoning task. Afterwards, they came back to mash more buttons while sitting in a brain scanner.
The results showed that the group that received multitasking training was significantly better at doing the tasks at hand. Additionally, brain imaging revealed that the training altered how important parts of the brain were involved. The researchers focused on the frontoparietal lobe and the subcortex, areas of the brain implicated in processing multiple tasks.
"We found that training increases the distinctiveness of neural representations of component tasks," said study co-author Kelly Garner. "This suggests that the brain employs a divide-and-conquer strategy to overcome multitasking. By separating out the neural response to both tasks, competition for neural resources is reduced."
In other words, the researchers determined that after multitasking training participants' brains showed more distinct task processing - the brain became better at processing each task separately. The results were published in PNAS.
However, there's an important caveat. Speaking to Bianca Nogrady at ABC Science, Paul Dux admitted that we still don't know whether training to multitask one set of tasks is going to improve your multitasking abilities overall - no matter what all those online brain-training apps tell you.
So don't get carried away, and stow your mobile phone while driving, for everyone's sake.