Tag Archives: multitasking

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.

Men, not women, are better multitaskers

The long held belief that women are better multitaskers than men seems to finally be debunked, according to a new Swedish study.

“On the contrary, the results of our study show that men are better at multitasking than women,” Timo Maentylae, a psychology professor at Stockholm University, said.

Surprising or not, the female ability to multitask can be directly correlated with their menstrual cycle.

“Previous studies have shown that women’s spatial skills vary across the menstrual cycle with high capacity around menstruation and much lower around ovulation, when oestrogen levels are high,” he said. “The results showed a clear difference in multitasking between men and women in the ovulation phase, while this effect was eliminated for women in the menstrual phase.”

In order to test this, he signed 160 subjects, both male and female, between 23 and 40 years of age. They were instructed to keep track of three digital counters which displayed different times at different speeds, defined by a simple set of rules. While remembering these times, subjects also had to watch a scrolling ticker featuring common Swedish names and press a button when one of the names was repeated. The results were pretty clear. While a truly small portion of all humans truly are multitaskers, men are significantly better than women at this kind of activity.

The results were published in Psychological science

Multitasking becomes more difficult as we age, brain scans show

It’s somewhat evidently observable that the elderly have more trouble focusing or multitasking than young people, but a recent study in which scientists used brain scans shows an unexpected explanation to the generation deficit.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco led by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, recruited 20 relatively young adults, average age 25, and 20 comparatively elderly people, average age 69. Each of them was plugged to a fMRI scanner and shown a series of images. The first one was that of a landscape, which they were asked to keep it in mind; after a few seconds, they were shown a portrait of a face, and had to answer several questions about it, and then they were shown another picture of a landscape and then asked if it matched the first.

After analyzing the results this is where things actually get interesting – it’s not that elderly people pay more attention to distractions, like most of us might have been led to believe, instead, they seem to have trouble letting go of distraction, and are slow to regain focus on their original tasks.

Researchers initially believed that elderly brain scans will show a predisposition for distractions, however that was not the case – average brain activity was little different from their younger counterparts when presented with the distracting face, the difference appeared in the next stage. When the portrait was removed, its activity lingered in elderly brains, while quickly dissipating from younger ones. When the landscape was re-introduced, elderly brains were slow to pick up, and younger brains fast.

Interesting as it may be, the study however seems to pose more questions than answers, like for instance whether the elderly are slower at multitasking because they were born and raised in an environment less fragmented and agitated as opposed to that of the youngsters. If this is the case, then multitasking can be correlated to culture, not age, and if age is indeed responsible for the multitasking difference between generations, then when does the degradation start? This may just be the premise for more extensive tests and research.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 12.