Brains Of Multitaskers Structurally Different Than Brains Of Monotaskers
    By Garth Sundem | February 24th 2012 07:41 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Garth Sundem is a Science, Math and general Geek Culture writer, TED speaker, and author of books including Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the...

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    I don’t multitask. Or, I do it so badly that I end up dropping everything in a massive tangle of badness with me standing baffled at its center. This frustrates my wife to no end. She can balance on a beach ball while writing things in her calendar, listening to Radio Lab, text-messaging, and juggling chainsaws (it’s a neat trick — and also kind of hot). I hold that monotasking allows me to get a string of things done right, one at a time. Kristi thinks that multitasking is a prerequisite for inclusion in post-Stone Age society and that monotaskers should be rounded up and reprogrammed at underground government facilities.

    The question is, is there hope for us monotaskers? Should monotaskers like me strive for less inept sessions of multitasking, or should we just give it up completely?

    For my book, Brain Trust, I posed the question to David Strayer, director of the applied cognition lab at the University of Utah, who studies multitasking in the fertile realm of distracted driving. His studies found that “ninety-eight percent of people can’t multitask — they don’t do either task as well.” That’s certainly not surprising to me, being firmly among the 98 percent.

    But here’s the interesting part: 2 percent of people can juggle without dropping a ball or, indeed, without any ball even sailing less high — they show no ill effects from multitasking. Strayer calls these people supertaskers. “The question we had,” says Strayer, “is, who are these people?”

    To find out, he put supertaskers through a battery of tests, including neuroimaging and genetic evaluation. And he found that, sure enough, the very structure of the supertasker brain looks different than those of 98 percent of us. “These brain regions that differentiate supertaskers from the rest of the population are the same regions that are most different between humans and nonhuman primates,” says Strayer. In other words, the brains of supertaskers are just that much further away from those of apes, “the leading edge of evolution,” says Strayer. Specifically: “Certain parts of the frontal cortex are recruited in an interesting way,” says Strayer. In fact, these areas show less activity when multitasking than do the same areas in normal, human, mammalian, non-alien-overlord brains like mine.

    And it’s distinct — you either efficiently recruit this region or you don’t. You’re either a supertasker or you’re not. You’re either human like me, or a supertasking, blood-drinking, shape-shifting, reptilian alien like my wife.

    If you’re a supertasker, you know it. Please feel free to continue reading this post on your smartphone or tablet while you drive one-handed and one-eyed down the freeway. But if you’re not a supertasker, the overwhelming message of science is this: just give it up already! By multitasking, you do everything less well. Instead, if you want to get the most done right, design your life to monotask. Your brain will thank you for it.

    “Writers from Muir to Abbey have talked about the benefits of getting into nature,” says Strayer, “but we haven’t studied it at a neuroscience level until now.”

    This is attention restoration theory, based partly on the idea that refraining from multitasking in a text-rich environment might detox, rest, and restore fried neurons in the frontal lobe. While Strayer is quick to say that more research is needed, he points out that from a large pool of anecdotal evidence, “After three days, you start to experience radically different thoughts.” (For an example, video search “double rainbow.”)

    And so there may be hope for me, and by extension all of humanity, yet. If you find your frontal lobe freaking out, head for the hills as quickly as possible. You’ll meet me on the way. And if you do, please be alert because I’m likely texting and may swerve dangerously.


    Are most supertaskers women?

    Garth Sundem
    Good question! I don't know, but will ask Strayer now. Stay tuned.

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    I wonder where I fall in this, I do things like read blogs here between stuff to let my subconscious ponder stuff, I get a lot of quality thinking in while driving, and while I get really anxious when I have a bunch of complex tasks to do all at the same time, I seem to do them well.

    BTW, do you have any mri's of multitaskers?
    Never is a long time.
    In a competitive and busy world, it looks like multitaskers will excel better than monotaskers. 

    I wonder if you misread yourself.  With your qualification and being successful, it would seem you can multitask maybe not in all aspects and all situations.

     My theory is that everybody can multitask- only that they vary in degree. This is based on my personal experience and observations from colleagues at work and members of the family. I have never encountered anyone who is a monotasker. You'll be the first in case.

    I bet, a monotasker must be harder to work with. Maybe impatient and a bore.
    Lindsay M. Starke
    Something that adds a delicious layer on top of this is how many people are unlike you and do think that they can multitask effectively...but who also aren't in the elite 2 percent of supertaskers. When we posted our article on cell phones and multitasking on Facebook, everyone responded saying that "sure, most people can't safely talk on the phone and drive, but I can."  It's a unlikely that all of our fans are supertaskers, so it seems folks are a bit self-deluding.
    There's a lot of neuroscience research coming out about prediction errors and a hardwired bias toward optimism (that is, nobody thinks that bad thing will happen to them, because they are special). I wonder if this might impact how we view our own strengths and weaknesses.
    Garth Sundem
    Have you seen David Dunning's work at Cornell? He looks at self misperception, for example finding that people are pretty much spot on in predicting how many fellow students will buy daffodils for an upcoming fundraiser, but massively overpredicting their own chance of doing same. Similar with predicting and overpredicting others' and self likelihood of voting in elections. Or he found that chess players with higher rankings accurately predict their skill, while players with lower rankings overestimate. Or that something like 90% of college professors consider themselves in the top 25% (mirroring the classic studies of drivers -- all of whom consider themselves "above average"...). Good stuff!

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust