We live in a 24/7 connected culture that enables us to commute to work, read a book, and pay the bills on our smartphones, all at the same time. This ability to manage multiple things, set priorities, and adapt to changing conditions may come easier to women than men. A recent study in Human Physiology found men require more brainpower than women when multitasking. 

"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," said Svetlana Kuptsova, author of the study, and part of the National Research University Higher School of Economics Neurolinguistic Laboratory, in a statement. 

Previous research has shown women find it easier than men to multitask and switch between tasks. Although both sexes struggle to cope with juggling priorities, men suffer more on average. Women were better apt to jump between incoming emails, phone calls, and assignments, while running in and out of meetings. However, both women and men slowed down and made more mistakes as they switched tasks and tried to work faster. 

The researchers suggest women spend more time thinking at the beginning, while men are more impulsive, and jump in too quickly. This implies women are more equipped to stop and process what’s going on in front of them in a stressful and complex situation. However, Kuptsova and her colleagues note there is no explanation as to what areas of the male and female brains respond differently, and why this has been so unclear.

A total of 140 healthy volunteers, including 69 men and 71 women between 20 and 65 were involved in the series of experiments. Kuptsova and her colleagues asked participants to perform a test that required switching attention between sorting objects according to shape (round or square) and number (one or two), in a pseudo-random order using functional MRI. In addition, neuropsychological tests were conducted, including the D-KEFS Trail Making Test, which measures the participants’ ability to switch attention, and the Wechsler Memory Scale test to measure their audial and visual memory.

Despite gender and age, multitasking always involves activating certain brain regions, specifically activating the dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which are involved in a variety of complex behaviors, including planning, and which have a heavy influence on personality development. Other areas include the supplementary motor areas, which contribute to movement control; the inferior parietal lobes, concerned with language, mathematical operations, and body image, particularly the supramarginal gyrus and the angular gyrus; and the inferior occipital gyrus, which are involved in the visual processing center.

"We know that stronger activation and involvement of supplementary areas of the brain are normally observed in subjects faced with complex tasks,” said Kuptsova.

Gender differences were found when it came to brain activation during task switching in participants younger than 45 to 50, while those aged 50 and older showed no gender differences in brain activation or speed task switching. The researchers note older men and women, starting at the age of 45 in women and 55 in men, experienced increased activation of key areas in the brain, and were able to mobilize additional brain resources. Although the reaction time is different, it is barely noticeable in everyday life.

However, Kuptsova notes, “"it might make a difference in really stressful circumstances or in critical situations which require frequent switching of attention."

So why does this gender difference exist?

Currently, American psychologist Jerre Levy proposes men tend to have better spatial skills and women are better at more verbal tasks because of evolution and social factors. Previously, men spent their time hunting, requiring spatial abilities, and women were caretakers for their children, which warrants good communication skills. These survival traits have been passed down from generation to generation, which can explain why these gender differences in multitasking have come to exist.

Perhaps men and women shouldn’t get so caught up in who’s the better multitasker. In reality, there’s only a small number of people who are decent multitaskers, known as “supertaskers,” which only includes 2 percent of the population.

Chances are you are not one of them. Don’t stress it.

Source: Kuptsova SV, Ivanova MV, Petrushevskiy MV et al. Sex- and age-related characteristics of brain functioning during task switching (fMRI study). Human Physiology. 2016.