Key to Multitasking Effectively and What It Means to Brain Health


Effective Multitasking Can Be Learned

Although “multitasking” is a popular buzzword, research shows that only 2% of the population actually multitasks efficiently. Most of us just shift back and forth between different tasks, a process that requires our brains to refocus time and time again — and reduces overall productivity by a whopping 40%.

New Tel Aviv University research identifies a brain mechanism that enables more efficient multitasking. The key to this is “reactivating the learned memory,” a process that allows a person to more efficiently learn or engage in two tasks in close conjunction.

“The mechanism may have far-reaching implications for the improvement of learning and memory functions in daily life,” said Dr. Nitzan Censor of TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience. ”

The research, conducted by TAU student Jasmine Herszage, was published in Current Biology.

Training the Brain

“When we learn a new task, we have great difficulty performing it and learning something else at the same time. For example, performing a motor task A (such as performing a task with one hand) can reduce performance in a second task B (such as performing a task with the other hand) conducted in close conjunction to it. This is due to interference between the two tasks, which compete for the same brain resources,” said Dr. Censor. “Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference in the performance of another task performed in close conjunction.”

The researchers first taught student volunteers to perform a sequence of motor finger movements with one hand, by learning to tap onto a keypad a specific string of digits appearing on a computer screen as quickly and accurately as possible. After acquiring this learned motor memory, the memory was reactivated on a different day, during which the participants were required to briefly engage with the task — this time with an addition of brief exposure to the same motor task performed with their other hand. By utilizing memory reactivation, the subjects were able to perform the two tasks without interference.

By uniquely pairing the brief reactivation of the original memory with the exposure to a new memory, long-term immunity to future interference was created, demonstrating a prevention of interference even a month after the exposures.

What is interesting is that I find musicians are natural multitaskers. Look at drummers. They have all of their limbs in action when playing. When I perform, I am singing, playing guitar, and working foot pedals. And I can do them all equally well. But that has come with years of practice and I reactivate those skills every time I strap on the guitar. Get good at multitasking. It could serve you well in the future.