The neuroscience of multi-tasking

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

When you’re paying close attention to several things at once, what is your brain actually doing? Is it splitting your focus into multiple, simultaneous “spotlights”? Or is there just one spotlight that quickly switches between objects? Or is there one really big spotlight taking in everything at once?

A new study, led by Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a cognitive neurophysiology specialist from McGill University, has found evidence of multiple spotlights.

The team published their findings in Neuron. (And, yes, that’s McGill’s Redmen football team on the cover. Sports is a good example of cognitive multi-tasking.) The team recorded the activity of single neurons in the brains of two monkeys while the animals concentrated on two objects that circumvented a third “distracter” object. The neural recordings showed that attention can in fact, be split into two “spotlights” corresponding to the relevant objects and excluding the in-between distracter.

“One implication of these findings is that our brain has evolved to attend to more than one object in parallel, and therefore to multi-task,” says Martinez-Trujillo. “Though there are limits, our brains have this ability.”

Read more about the study here.

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