Under the Hood

Male Brains Get ‘Overwhelmed’ When Asked To Multitask: Study Tells Women What They Already Knew

A lot of women are probably rolling their eyes right now, thinking of all the single-minded men in their lives. Researchers have shown those ladies aren’t just nagging — men can’t multitask and women can.

"With a brain a third the size of us. It's science." Credit: Anchorman

According to a story from the international news agency AFP, in an experiment, men trying to solve a language problem while walking on a treadmill swung their right arms less, while women younger than 60 were physically unaffected. Both that right arm movement and language functions are believed to be controlled by the same brain hemisphere, the left, so the findings speak to the brain’s multitasking abilities.

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“In men and older women, the verbal task appears to overwhelm the left brain to the extent that the movement of the arm on the right is reduced,” study co-author and neuroscientist Tim Killeen, from University Hospital Balgrist in Switzerland, told AFP.

The test that the researchers used is something called a Stroop test, most commonly administered by asking people to name the color of a displayed ink when the word written in that ink may not match it — for example, when the word “red” is written in blue ink. People might take longer to answer or answer incorrectly when the word does not match the ink color.

art-1284384_1920 Men had a harder time than women walking and taking a color-language test at the same time. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Of the 83 subjects in the experiment, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the men’s poorer performance suggests “unexpected gender differences atop the hierarchical chain of locomotor control,” the study says.

According to AFP, the fact that younger women were more capable of the multitask may mean estrogen levels play a role.

“Whether this might apply to other compound activities — such as driving and talking or walking and texting — has yet to be shown,” AFP notes.

The treadmill Stroop test was not the first to show that women can multitask better than men. Inc. notes that male multitaskers can lose up to 15 IQ points during the deed, “essentially turning you into the cognitive equivalent of an 8-year-old.” And other experts say multitasking is not doing two things at once as much as it is switching your attention between them super quickly, which negatively affects the quality with which the task is completed.

Source: Killeen T, Easthope CS, Filli L, et al. Increasing cognitive load attenuates right arm swing in healthy human walking. Royal Society Open Science. 2017.

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