There is a popular belief that women are better than men at multitasking. Although some studies have supported this claim, other scientists have pointed to the insufficient evidence for this generalization. New research supports the former, suggesting it may be more difficult for the male brain to switch between tasks, as it uses more resources to do so.
We commonly use the term "multitasking" to refer to our brain's ability to perform several tasks at once.
However, from a psychological point of view, "task-switching" may be a more accurate term. Findings in neuroscience and psychology suggest that during what is commonly referred to as "multitasking," the brain actually performs a task, stops, and switches to the next one, all in a very short span of time.
There is a popular belief that women are better at task-switching than men, but some scientists have argued that this remains a popular generalization with no scientific evidence to support it. For example, one extensive overview of scientific literature "could not find a single scientific report to support this view."
However, other studies suggest women do perform better at least in some multi-tasking paradigms. One such study found women outperformed men in computer-based, task-switching tests, as well as in "paper-and-pencil" multitasking tests. Men were also significantly slower in switching between tasks.
New research looks at how much energy male brains spend when performing task-switching tests, as well as what areas of the brain are activated when doing so.
Studying task-switching in men and women
A new study performed by researchers from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, Russia, looks at gender differences in attention-switching task performance.
The research was led by Svetlana Kuptsova and Maria Ivanova, from the HSE Neurolinguistic Laboratory.
Researchers examined 140 men and women aged between 20-65, of whom 69 were men.
Participants were asked to perform a task-switching test inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) contrast imaging was used to observe activity in the brain.
Participants were asked to switch attention between two objectives, in a pseudo-random order. They were required to classify figures according to shape, namely round or square, and classify them according to number, i.e. one or two.
Researchers calculated the volumes of gray and white matter in the entire brain and in selected areas.
Additionally, they conducted neuropsychological tests, such as the D-KEFS Trail Making Test, to measure the participants' attention-switching ability, and the Wechsler Memory Scale Test to measure their auditory and visual memory.
Men use more brain resources to switch between tasks
Regardless of gender or age, task-switching usually activates the dorsolateral prefrontal areas of the brain, the inferior parietal lobes, and the inferior occipital gyrus.
The study revealed that compared with women, young men aged between 20-30 had greater bilateral activation in the prefrontal areas and higher activity in the right parietal lobe and insula. In addition, men displayed bilateral activation of the supplementary motor area, which was not observed in women.
Age seemed to somewhat impact the results. The observed brain activation was localized in younger adults but became more diffused with age. No correlation between BOLD signals and age was noticed between the ages of 20-40 in women and between 20-55 in men. However, after this age, researchers found an increase in the number of brain areas activated in both men and women.
Gender differences also became negligible with age, as researchers did not register any significant differences in men and women aged between 51-65.
Finally, the analysis showed a decrease in gray, but not white matter with age.
The results of the study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Human Physiology.
Men may find task-switching more difficult
The research suggests men might find it more difficult to switch between tasks, as the male brain appears to need more brain power when doing this.
"We know that stronger activation and involvement of supplementary areas of the brain are normally observed in subjects faced with complex tasks. Our findings suggest that women might find it easier than men to switch attention and their brains do not need to mobilize extra resources in doing so, as opposed to male brains."
Although the difference found in reaction time is scientifically relevant, in day-to-day life it is barely noticeable, explains Kuptsova, with the exception of perhaps "really stressful circumstances or critical situations which require frequent switching of attention."
The reasons for this difference remain unknown. As Kuptsova argues, although evolutionary and social factors might play a role, any assumptions as to why nature might need it are pure speculation.