The ability to multi-task decreases with age and can often lead to an elderly patient’s feelings of isolation. Unable to keep up with the daily swirl of events, they become stressed, further undermining their confidence. Shifting gears from cooking dinner while watching television, or conversing while driving may become too much for the elderly.
A research team at the Insitut Universitaire de Gériatrie (IUGM) and the University of Montreal has finally identified that part of the brain responsible for multi-tasking.
In their study, 48 seniors were randomly selected to undergo training that either worked on plasticity and attentional control or involved simple practice. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the team was able to identify the impact of the training on the brain. Surprisingly, even though the exercises were not multi-functional, focusing on plasticity and attentional control instead, they appeared to help the ability to multi-task.
Counter-intuitively, they were not required to perform two tasks simultaneously. In these exercises, the participants were asked to modulate the attention give to each task. Initially asked to devote 80% of their attention to task ‘A ‘and 20% to task ‘B’, they were then asked to change that ratio to 50:50 and then 20:80.
This type of training proved to be the only one that increased functioning in the middle prefrontal region responsible for multi-tasking abilities and whose activation decreases with age. Using this data, the team created a predictive model of the effects of cognitive training.
The correlation between targeted training and cognition has long been a mystery but this study may finally shed some scientific light, providing specific results that help to determine effective training. This news is especially heartening for healthy seniors who want to maintain and improve their attention or memory.
It should be noted, however, that significant studies have also shown too much multi-tasking to be counterproductive. In the fast paced world of iPhones, laptops, video games and incessant beeping, many younger folks equate productivity with their ability to switch gears. However, according to some researchers, it may actually result in a 40% drop in productivity, primarily because switching from one task to another appears to allow distractions that cause mental blocks that slow down progress.
In one study conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, participants were slower when asked to switch tasks than when repeating the same task. Another study in 2001 by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer noted that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks. This loss grew as the tasks became increasingly complex.
The identification of practices that actually lead to physical changes in the area of the brain that control multi-tasking is a significant step. It provides a great deal of scientific evidence that may prove invaluable to both those who multi-task to their detriment and those who simply want to carry on their daily duties without confusion and fear.
Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.
Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.