Why men can’t multitask

Women are better than multi-tasking than men, according to experts.
Women are better than multi-tasking than men, according to experts.

Women are better at multitasking because men have ‘greedier brains’ which take up more energy when juggling tasks, according to new research.

But it’s not all good news for women - when they hit middle age they struggle as much as men.

It has long been known females are hardwired to juggle several jobs at once while males can only properly concentrate on a single thing - and the reason is simple.

Scans showed men need to mobilise additional areas of their brain and use more energy when multitasking.

Switching attention between chores causes stronger activation in certain neural regions compared to women.

But the interesting thing is women only have this mental advantage until middle age - when they begin to struggle just as much as men.

Regardless of gender and age, task switching always triggers specific areas of the brain.

But experiments found this requires requires less brain power in younger women aged 20 to 45.

Their male counterparts showed greater activation in supplementary motor and insula areas as well as the dorsolateral prefrontal.

Explained Svetlana Kuptsovaof, of the Neurolinguistic Laboratory at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow: “We know stronger activation and involvement of supplementary areas of the brain are normally observed in subjects faced with complex tasks.

“Our findings suggest women might find it easier than men to switch attention and their brains do not need to mobilise extra resources in doing so, as opposed to male brains.”

The study published in Human Physiology involved 140 healthy 20 to 65 year olds, 69 of whom were men and 71 women.

They were asked to perform a variety of tasks while magnetic resonance images (MRI) of their brains were taken, such as sorting objects in order according to shape (round or square) and number (one or two).

Neuropsychological tests were also carried out to measure the subjects’ ability to switch attention and their audial and visual memory.

The use of the scans allowed the researchers not only to observe the subjects’ behaviour, but also to see what was going on in their heads as they switched between tasks and detect gender differences in neuron activation.

And these only occurred in subjects younger than 45 to 50, while there was no variation either in brain activation or task switching speed between men and women who were older.

According to the researchers, older men and women - starting at the age of 45 in women and 55 in men - experienced both increased activation of key areas involved and mobilisation of additional brain resources.

The Russian researchers said the study has once again confirmed young women tend to cope with attention switching better.

But while the reaction time is demonstrably different, according to junior research fellow Ms Kuptsova, it is barely noticeable in everyday life.

However, she added: “It might make a difference in really stressful circumstances or in critical situations which require frequent switching of attention.”

She said science cannot currently explain the exact reasons for this difference, and any assumptions as to why nature may need it are nothing but speculation.

For example, there is a popular hypothesis as to why men tend to have better spatial skills and women are often better at more verbal tasks.

According to American psychologist Jerre Levy, these differences are caused by both evolutionary and social factors.

In ancient times, men spent their time hunting, which required good spatial abilities, while women were caring for children and thus needed good communication skills.

In the course of evolution, these survival skills have been passed down to future generations.

Added Ms Kuptsova: “We could continue with the same logic and assume homemaking and caring for children historically required women to be good at multitasking, but there is no hard evidence to support this theory.”