21 October 2015

Researchers from The University of Queensland have taken significant strides towards solving one of the key mysteries in psychology and neuroscience – why humans struggle to do two things at once.

Associate Professor Paul E. Dux and Dr Kelly Garner from the School of Psychology studied how training changes our brain’s ability to multitask and why some respond better to training than others.

“Life increasingly asks us to negotiate information-rich environments where our senses are bombarded with multiple tasks,” Dr Dux said.

“Previous work has demonstrated that our ability to multitask can be improved over time with training, but the neural mechanisms that drive this adaption have not been understood.”

UQ researchers undertook a large-scale brain imaging study in humans to analyse patterns of brain activity that occurred when individuals attempted to complete simple tasks.

Tasks were completed both in isolation and simultaneously.

Altogether 100 participants completed these tasks at the beginning and the end of a week while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In between scans participants completed 3024 training trials, and were assigned either the combination of single and multitasks, or a comparably difficult single task.

The latter was the control group and challenged visual-spatial skills, but did not require multitasking.

“We found that training increases the distinctiveness of neural representations of component tasks,” Dr Garner said.

“This suggests that the brain employs a divide-and-conquer strategy to overcome multitasking.

“By separating out the neural response to both tasks, competition for neural resources is reduced.

“Furthermore, individual improvements were predicted by the degree to which neural representations had been separated out.”

The distinctive separation of neural representations was found only for the group which trained on the multitask – and not for the control group, which trained on the visual-spatial task.

Therefore the type of training was shown to be important.

The UQ researchers said the findings – published by journal PNAS – also provided clues about why some people were better at multitasking than others.

Media: Associate Professor Paul E Dux, p.dux2@uq.edu.au , +61 7 3365 6885; Robert Burgin, UQ Communications, r.burgin@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 3035, +61 448 410 364.