It is virtually taken for granted nowadays that multi-tasking is a must. The demands on our time seem to be coming ever faster and in more complicated ways than we ever had to deal with before. Most of us are resigned to the fact that we are expected to be able to type up emails while on the phone and organise our calendar at the same time. If you’re a teenager (or ultra-hip oldie), throw in txting friends, updating your Facebook status and keeping a running commentary on pointless activities on Twitter. Previous studies on multi-tasking have shown that switching rapidly between tasks incurs a cost in time but what is actually happening when we do two (or more) things at once?

It certainly seems when we perform two tasks we are familiar with that we drop into “autopilot” where we might do one task without conscious thought while we focus our attention on another task, say driving while talking to a passenger. While we are deep in discussion it seems as though we are allowing the actions required for driving to be  handled by a “lower” part of our brain while we actively think about appropriate responses to the conversation. Anyone who has accidentally “driven to work” while meaning to go somewhere else would swear this interpretation is true.

Recent work published in the July16th issue of Neuron however disputes this interpretation of how our brain works. The study seems to show that instead of tasks becoming automatic and thus not requiring oversight by the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for conscious control), this area actually works more efficiently and switches tasks faster. In other words we are still only doing one thing at a time but swapping between tasks fast enough that it gives the appearance of multi-tasking. In the words of the researchers:

“The effect of training is to speed up information processing through this pre-frontal bottleneck, thereby reducing temporal processing overlap of the sensory-motor tasks in this brain region”

So, next time you boast of being a multi-tasking maven you can add that this actually means your brain works faster than those lounging in non-multitasking mediocrity. On the other hand, no need to inspire unnecessary ire among your peers unless you can handle the multiple tasks of running away and dodging projectiles.