You Can Actually Learn to Multitask

Devon Kelley
Assistant Beauty Editor
Chances are you’ve been multitasking all wrong. (Photo: Getty Images)

You may think you’re great at multitasking, but chances are, you’re just switching between different tasks, which actually reduces productivity by 40 percent.

But new research from Tel Aviv University indicates that multitasking can be learned by “reactivating the learned memory.”

“The mechanism may have far-reaching implications for the improvement of learning and memory functions in daily life,” Nitzan Censor of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience told EurekAlert. “It also has clinical implications. It may support rehabilitation efforts following brain traumas that impact the motor and memory functions of patients, for example.”

In teaching the brain to perform two tasks in close conjunction, researchers found that performing a newly learned task and learning something else at the same time is very difficult, since each of the tasks competes for the same brain resources. “Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference in the performance of another task performed in close conjunction,” said Censor.

In order to activate this part of the brain, researchers taught participants a sequence of finger movements on a keypad with one hand. After memorizing the sequence, the memory was reactivated on a different day, when participants were asked to perform the sequence again, this time introducing the same sequence to the other hand. Using the memory reactivation model, participants effectively performed the two sequences in conjunction.

This isn’t the first study to test the reactivation of learned memory. Previous research in rodents found that reactivating a fearful memory allowed for a window of several hours in which the brain was able to introduce memory modifications.

“In other words, when a learned memory is reactivated by a brief cue or reminder, a unique time window opens up. This presents an opportunity to interact with the memory and update it — degrade, stabilize or strengthen its underlying brain neural representations,” explained Censor. “We utilized this knowledge to discover a mechanism that enabled long-term stabilization and prevention of task interference in humans.”

Researchers are unclear as to whether this brain function is the result of “hardwired circuitry in the brain” that allows several stages of learning to be joined. Censor added, “It is also essential to determine whether the identified mechanism is relevant for other types of tasks and memories, not only motor tasks.”

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