In a nutshell: New research shows that multitasking involves more of the brain than previously thought, which might also explain why practice improves performance.

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Although multitasking might make us feel more productive, it comes at a cost. Often, performing tasks together takes longer than tackling them individually.

Multitasking requires the brain to send and receive information across different brain regions known as the frontal-parietal network. This slows down the brain’s response time.

Practicing individual tasks can help us to multitask more quickly. Practicing causes changes in the connections across the frontal-parietal network.

New research from the Brain Function CoE shows that these changes extend deeper into the brain than previously thought.

Kelly Garner and Paul Dux from the University of Queensland, along with Marta Garrido from the University of Melbourne, recruited 100 people to take part in a multitasking experiment. Each participant’s brain activity was recorded while they completed a single task or multitasked. Then, half of the participants spent a week practicing multitasking. At the end of that week, all participants were tested again on their ability to perform the tasks one at a time or at the same time.

The results showed that the participants had longer reaction times when they performed tasks together than when they performed them separately. Participants who practiced multitasking performed faster and better than those who didn’t practice.

The researchers then pinpointed which parts of the brain were most active during multitasking. They found that in addition to the frontal-parietal network, the putamen – part of a region deep in the centre of the brain called the striatum – was active. The putamen is involved in different types of learning.

The researchers found that there was more communication between the putamen and the frontal-parietal network when multitasking than when carrying out single tasks.

The higher rate of information transfer between these brain regions during multitasking may explain why reaction times increase. The researchers suggest that when a task has been learned, or practiced, there is a change in how information is transferred to the putamen.

Next steps:
The researchers plan to study the effect of practice on difficult mental tasks. They will use ultrahigh-resolution imaging to see how practice affects the brain.

Garner, K. G., Garrido, M. I., & Dux, P. E. (2020). Cognitive capacity limits are remediated by practice-induced plasticity between the putamen and pre-supplementary motor area. eNeuro, ENEURO.0139-20.2020. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0139-20.2020

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