The human brain finds it hard to multi-task, which might explain why most of us are so bad at it — but interestingly research has also shown that "super multitaskers" exist whose brains are more capable of juggling multiple tasks at once. In a normal brain, you see, we don't actually "multitask," or take care of two tasks at once; what our brains really do is rapidly switch back and forth between tasks ("task-switching"), which tends to result in a decreased proficiency in both or all the tasks you're trying to accomplish. For super multi-taskers, however, there is no (or very little) decreased proficiency in any of the tasks, meaning that they are highly neurologically skilled at energy efficient task-shifting. So: How do you tell if you're a super multitasker? Well, let's take a closer look at the phenomenon, shall we?
Back in 2010, two University of Utah researchers conducted a study on 200 individuals, attempting to gauge peoples' ability to multi-task while driving. They simulated the experience of driving while talking on a cell phone by having their subject try to keep a car in its lane during a simulated driving experience while simultaneously memorizing words they heard or doing verbal math problems. As you would expect, the vast majority of participants were worse at the mental test and the driving simulation together than separately. However, 2.5 percent of the participants demonstrated no decreased ability in either task when they were performed together. The five individuals were deemed, "super-taskers."
Now, the same researchers are back at it, trying to understand what makes the brain of a super multitasker different than that of a normal person. They just conducted a new study using the original five super-taskers, in addition to three that were recruited subsequent to the initial study, their tasking ability ascertained using the same driving-test simulator. The super-taskers were matched according to age and short-term memory ability to eight control individuals. Then, the participants were asked to perform what is called an"n-back" test while having their brains scanned.
Unfortunately, an "n-back" test does not test your ability to recall trivia about Nickelback. Rather, the test had individuals attempt to recall the position on the screen of a blue square, as well as a series of letters being spoken to them. They could be asked to recall where the square was or what letter had been spoken as many as three positions/letters back, thus the fancy name, "n-back."
The brain scans of the super-taskers actually showed that the areas of the brain responsible for switching between the tasks stayed cool (like, temperature cool) while those of the controls heated up. While the super-taskers didn't do better multitasking than the controls did with only one task, they still did better than the controls who were multitasking and expended significantly less effort. Perhaps, then, it is the conservation of mental energy that allows super-taskers to be so good at task-switching.
It's hard for me to read a study like this without wondering, "Am I, too, a special snowflake?" I want to know if I'm a super multitasker. So I took my very own "n-back" exam to find out how good I am at multitasking.
Well, friends, it turns out that I'm really bad at multitasking. Not only that, but I'm also apparently bad at reading directions, because for the first six rounds I thought I was supposed to be recalling the most recent box position or letter spoken — when, in actuality, I was supposed to remember the one before that one. My scores didn't actually change that much, though, when I was doing it right, so that's cool.
Here's the gist of what happens when you play. I did it, and it took forever (25 minutes), so you don't have to:
1. Opening Screen
Looks harmless, right?
2. First Session
A box! Maybe it will be like Tetris!
3. First Score
Oh my, this isn't like Tetris at all. The next 19 score boxes look like this one, by the way, so just imagine this whole thing repeating a bunch more times and you've got the general idea of what the test is like.
4. A Short-Lived Blaze of Glory
This was my best round. I got 18/20 on the visual and the audio components (and also it happened to be the 18/20th session — spookym right?). It took me 18 rounds to learn that when you do well — that is, when you make two or fewer errors — the difficulty level increases by a factor of one. In the 19th round, then, I had to remember box placement and letters three-back... and sadly I did so poorly on it that I was bumped back down to two-back.
5. My Final Score
I'll have you know that this was incredibly disappointing. After devoting what felt like a lifetime to this test, I was expecting confetti, balloons, and maybe even the voice of the woman who had been taunting me with strings of "F-M-K-N-F-K-L-A" (they only use certain letters) saying, "Good work, Mikaela!"... but all I got was this sad, "You have completed all 20 sessions. Congratulations!" message. That's hardly a congratulations message, if you ask me. Basically, my score was a bit lower than the average n-back score of people who took the test for the first time; average is about 2.5.
But I didn't need a test to tell me I'm bad at multitasking. All I need is my coffee-stained shirt from yesterday when I was trying to drink coffee and write an email at the same time.
Images: Fotolia; Giphy; Soakyourhead.com (5)