Athletes and the neuroscience of multi-tasking

By Dan Peterson

There is a lot of debate and hand-wringing in the world right now about multi-tasking, and the way that technology and the pace of modern life has fundamentally changed the way that we operate and interact with the world. It’s been said that multi-tasking actually slows down our ability to get things done, that heavy multi-taskers make worse decisions, that the internet is making us stupid, and that even though people now do more multi-tasking, we aren’t getting any better at it.

But there is one group of people for whom multi-tasking is nothing new at all: athletes.  One might make the case that sports, especially open-field and free-flowing team sports, are essentially one big multi-tasking test.  Watch an NBA point guard for a play and see where his attention focuses: he’s dribbling the ball, protecting the ball with his body from a defender, looking for an open lane to the basket and keeping an eye not only on each of his teammates’ positions, but the position of each of their respective defenders, too.  His full attention probably isn’t anywhere for more than a half-second at a time.

Watching an expert athlete makes it hard to believe that multi-tasking isn’t a trainable skill, and there is some new research out of the University of Queensland that supports this idea and shines light on just how the brain juggles tasks and attention.  In the study, subjects trained on a simple multi-tasking test that required them to juggle a motor skill and a verbal response at the same time.  Via Medical News Today:

Before practice, the participants showed strong dual-task interference – slowing down of one or both tasks when they attempted to perform them together. As a result of practice and training, however, the individuals became very quick not only at doing each of the two tasks separately, but also at doing them together. In other words, they became very efficient multitaskers.

The fMRI data indicate that these gains were the result of information being processed more quickly and efficiently through the prefrontal cortex.

“Our results imply that the fundamental reason we are lousy multitaskers is because our brains process each task slowly, creating a bottleneck at the central stage of decision making,” René Marois, associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and co-author of the study, said. “Practice enables our brain to process each task more quickly through this bottleneck, speeding up performance overall.”

And again we see evidence of practice leading to physical changes in the brain, which then correspond to observable, testable gains on the task at hand. What’s more, while we might perceive ourselves as multi-tasking, the researchers observed that the brain itself was still carrying out each task separately:

“Our findings also suggest that, even after extensive practice, our brain does not really do two tasks at once,” Dux said. “It is still processing one task at a time, but it does it so fast it gives us the illusion we are doing two tasks simultaneously.”

This research poses interesting questions for how multi-tasking training might be applied in a sport-specific setting.  Obviously, the most basic multi-tasking abilities must be acquired through repetition and practice (e.g. dribbling a basketball or soccer ball while keeping your eyes on the field/court), but at a more advanced level training could get very interesting.  How many tasks can you layer on top of one another?  At what point does the complexity of a task become too great, and the ability to juggle anything else break down?  Are there some athletes that have an inherently better ability to multi-task than others, and does this ability correlate with success on the field?  There are certainly innovative coaches that are thinking about this and training athletes in this way, even though they may not be thinking about the neuroscience behind the process.

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