I don't know who started it but there's this popular notion that women, relative to men, are natural-born multitaskers. However, science's best efforts to settle the argument has turned up mostly conflicting evidence.
For instance, a study in 2010 out of the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. appeared to confirm that women were far more efficient at juggling demanding tasks, such as solving math problems while searching for restaurants and lost keys. But then another study, published last year, suggests that it's quite the opposite, that men were generally better whereas women excelled during peak periods that were influenced by their menstrual cycles. Now, another recent study basically says send everyone home because we're all quite bad at it.
Nick Chater, a behavioral scientist at the Warwick Business School in the U.K., carried out a series of psychological experiments on both sexes in which he had them correctly answer questions while engaged in other activities, such as walking. He found that whatever degree of concentration they had going was effectively jarred by having to integrate what was must have felt like a completely unrelated task.
The problem lies in the fact that, when it comes to multitasking, our minds aren't attending to two things at once. They're actually alternating their attention back and forth in a rapid-fire manner, similar to how computer chips process and execute commands. And it's this "interference" between competing areas of the brain, he says, that's the real culprit behind the decline in performance.
"When we are trying to strain our memory or when we have to do something remotely difficult, we have to stop doing something else," he told the Daily Mail. "Mental and physical energy is more connected than you imagine."
But what does he make of the studies that suggest women may be more capable of handing sudden episodes of cognitive dissonance? He points out that studies thus far have shown that any gender differences to be small, with women better in some circumstances and men in others.
Thus the real significant difference between the skilled multitasking and the bumblers, Chater argues, is that these people have become proficient at certain tasks to the point that it's become routine, which makes them easier to carry out all at once. Hence the trick is to blend these seemingly disparate processes slowly over time and only once you've mastered them.
"If we practice," he said, "we get very fluent at something and it requires almost no mental effort, like driving while listening to the radio."
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