Multitasking Brains Are Clutch Under Pressure

By Dan Peterson

Just ask the primary decision makers across different sports.  Quarterbacks, point guards, midfielders and catchers would agree that making the right choices during a game would be a whole lot easier if it weren’t for the constant distractions.  Whether it be a blitzing linebacker, a 1v1 defender or runners on base, staying focused on the next decision seems like an on or off process; something that can’t be dealt with until the current distraction is neutralized.  However, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have learned that our multitasking brains continue to mull impending decisions in the background while our conscious brain handles the noise in front of us.

Johnny Manziel

Picture a quarterback walking to the line of scrimmage with the play he called in the huddle.  Based on the defense he sees in front of him, he is processing his receiver options, searching for a correct decision.  After the snap of the ball, that thought process is interrupted by two linebackers bursting through the line.  First, deal with the distraction and avoid the sack.  Second, reengage the prior decision tree to find the open receiver.  To our QB, this seems like a serial event, but David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at CMU, showed that it’s actually a parallel process in our brains.

Using neuroimaging tools, his team watched the brains of 27 adults while they were gathering information to make a decision.  They noted that the visual and prefrontal cortices, areas of the brain known for decision making, were active when the volunteers were learning new information and considering options.  Just before they were asked to make a decision, they were distracted with having to memorize sequences of numbers, which involves other areas of the brain.

What they found was that even during the distraction, the participants’ visual and prefrontal cortices remained active, still working unconsciously on the decision task.  In fact, the group that endured the distractions did just as well at making the right decision as a control group that was not distracted.

In this video, Creswell and co-author James Bursely explain their experiment:

“This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making,” said Creswell. “It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks. What’s most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”

The study was just published in the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.”

Now, the use of background processing by the brain should not be confused with intuition, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.  More formally known as our adaptive unconscious, Gladwell focused on our perceived ability to make snap judgements without really understanding how we arrived at our conclusion.

When under fire during a game, athletes may well be making very quick decisions without the luxury of time to analyze all the information.  Experience and practice helps build those automatic responses.  Those players with a richer database of solutions should see more accurate knee jerk responses when needed.

It may well be a combination of real-time, background processing with some intuition gained from experience that helps elite players come through in the clutch.

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