September 02, 2008
Brain Scans Indicate When Best To Multitask

If only you could sit under an fMRI brain scanner all day the machine operator could tell you when it best to juggle lots of interrupts.

While having the study participants multitask, Leber and his colleagues at Yale University 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.

There's another way to spin this result: If we could find ways to up the level of activity in certain areas of hte brain then we could multitask better.

Most dramatically, the changes in performance were preceded by changes in the participants' brain activity patterns. Higher levels of activity in brain regions such as the basal ganglia, anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal cortex corresponded to better multitasking performance.

"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 tantalizing prospects for maximizing 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.

I would like to know what sorts of environmental influences put us in states where we are more able to multitask. Also, what do we lose in such states? Are we less able to think through a single task when in a state where our multitasking ability is improved? That is what I perceive. I get into states where I think I'm better off handling yet more interrupts once I've started getting interrupted. Getting back to the single minded focus on a single task can be hard once one starts juggling lots of things.

If you get interrupted a lot and find it hard to get back into a focused mental state then meditation might help.

Experienced Zen meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices, according to a new brain imaging study.

After being interrupted by a word-recognition task, experienced meditators' brains returned faster to their pre-interruption condition, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found.

The results will be published online by the journal Public Library of Science One (PLoS ONE).

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 02 11:27 PM  Brain Performance

rob said at September 3, 2008 6:13 AM:

Randall, did they look for any sex differences in brain activation and multi-tasking?

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