Women really are better multi-taskers, study finds

Women really are better multi-taskers than men but only up to menopause, a new study found.

Image credits d26b73 / Flickr.

A Swiss team has found that women really do multi-task better, owing to a cocktail of sex-specific hormones. Men and menopausal women performed largely similar (bad) at multitasking tests.

The team asked 83 volunteers aged between 18-80 to walk on a treadmill with no hand supports to record how each one walked. They then asked them to take to the treadmill while performing a variation of the Stroop test — which I’ll admit right now, sounds like hell. The Stroop test is widely employed to investigate cognitive processes and check for brain damage. It basically consists of names of colors written in ink of a different color. The participant has to either read the word or name the color as fast as he or she can.

At the same time, the researchers measured arm swing asymmetry in the participants by tracking their wrist movements in 3D. The Stroop test is mainly handled by the left side of the brain, as is the swinging motion of the right hand. So, by comparing the difference in their control gait to their test-gait, the team measured how well their left hemisphere handled two activities at the same time. In other words, the less able they were to move their right hand, the less ‘brain’ they had available.

“We know that the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for both the verbal task and the control of arm swing on the opposite side of the body,” said doctoral student and first author Tim Killeen, from the University Hospital Balgrist.

Women under 60 were almost completely free from this effect. Men and menopausal women showed a marked reduction in arm-swinging proficiency, which impacted their balance. The team believes that female sex hormones act on the brain to improve its multi-tasking abilities. As the hormones level drop later in life, women may find multi-tasking as tricky as men, the study suggests.

“In men and older women, the verbal task appears to overwhelm the left brain to the extent that the movement of the arm on the right is reduced. We were surprised to find such a consistent gender difference in how two relatively simple behaviours – cognitive control and arm swing – interact with one another.”

“Others have shown that women are better at switching between tasks than men. We show that women are apparently better, i.e. less susceptible to interference during walking and talking and that this ability apparently fades after 60.”

This settles a long debate, doesn’t it? Well, not really. To me, it seems that these results make perfect sense. I’ve seen my girlfriend texting and dodging heavy traffic without breaking a sweat, while I can’t even handle dialing and talking at the same time. But some papers contravene these findings directly, and there is some evidence that brain age also plays a part in multitasking.

Further research will have to either back-up or deny these results, and determine whether or not they can be generalized to other multi-tasking tasks such as walking and texting. Until then, the debate will have to rage on.

The full paper “Increasing cognitive load attenuates right arm swing in healthy human walking” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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