Multitasking and the brain

This dog says, "don't text and drive." (
This dog says, “don’t text and drive.” (

It figures that an article I wrote about multitasking would be published the same week I finally broke down and bought a smartphone! Check out The Multitasking Mind to learn more about the neuroscience of multitasking.

Training the brain

While I was interviewing neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley for my BrainFacts piece, he told me about a study his lab had completed that used a video game to train older adults to improve their working memory and multitasking abilities. The study hadn’t been accepted for publication when I conducted the interview so I wasn’t able to discuss it in my piece, but it’s since been published in Nature. It’s pretty interesting, and there was a nice write-up about it in the New York Times.


I also learned about “supertaskers” while researching my article, but wasn’t able to discuss them due to space constraints. While most of us will hit our multitasking peak around 23, some people—about 2.5 percent of the population—are born lucky. These people are sometimes called “supertaskers” because their performance does not decrease when multitasking. For example, the addition of a cell phone conversation to a driving simulation led to longer following distances and delayed braking time for most people.  The driving performance of supertaskers, however, stayed exactly the same. Their ability to perform memory and math tests during the cell phone conversation also stayed the same. In fact, some supertaskers actually did better when doing both tasks at once.

Are you a supertasker? Probably not. In fact, you may be even less likely to be a supertasker if you think you are one. A recent study showed that, in general, people who are the best at multitasking do not do it very often and do not think they are good at it. The people who thought they were skilled multitaskers and who often worked on multiple tasks simultaneously (especially in terms of media) were not actually good multitaskers.  So next time you feel like doing a math problem while talking on the phone and driving, please don’t.


Jacobsen W, Forste R. The wired generation: academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 14(5), 275-280 (2011).

Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner A. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(37), 15583-15587 (2009).

Sanbonmatsu D, Strayer D, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson J. Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLOS One. 8(1),  e54402 (2013).

Watson J, Strayer D. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 17(4), 479-485 (2010).


A plethora of posts (and a steminist profile)

Study: Pollutants may delay human pregnancies
A new study by Germaine Buck Louis and colleagues at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences took a novel approach to exploring how environmental pollutants may impact the time it takes for couples to conceive. Continue reading….

Study: Facial expressions of intense joy and anguish are indistinguishable
Studies looking at how people perceive emotions often rely on stimuli that look like floating faces. What has largely been missing in these studies is the role of the body in emotional processing. A fascinating new study published in Science used a clever experimental paradigm to tease apart how we use visual input from bodies more than faces to determine whether someone is having a very good or very bad day. Continue reading…

Project ARISE brings scientists and mobile labs into biology classrooms
Project ARISE (Advancing Rhode Island Science Education) connects high school biology teachers with Brown University scientists to enrich science education for Rhode Island high school students. Continue reading….

Play a game and help scientists map the connectome with EyeWire
Some people do jigsaw puzzles during their holiday breaks. This year you can help solve a different kind of puzzle by mapping a single neuron’s path through a mouse’s retina—right from the comfort of your couch. Continue reading…

Scratching at the neuroscience of itch
It may seem obvious that there must be at least one type of neuron that responds to things that make us itchy like a wool sweater or an allergic reaction to a new lotion. Until recently, however, scientists were unsure whether there were neurons that specifically process itchy stimuli or whether these neurons also process a related but very different sensation: pain. Continue reading…

My STEMINIST profile
The STEMINIST blog recently posted a profile about me.  To read more about how I got interested in science and my advice to other women in science, see the profile here.

The Adventures of Ned the Neuron: an educational project worth crowdfunding

The Adventures of Ned the Neuron is a Kickstarter project created by neuroscientist Erica Warp and computer programmer Jessica Voytek through their company Kizoom.  Erica and Jessica are creating an amazing electronic storybook about Ned and his nervous system adventures. The book/app is targeted to kids ages 7-11 and will teach them 30 different neuroscience concepts with stories and games. But they need money to be able to do this. They have three days left to raise $25,000 via Kickstarter. You can check out a video about the project there and see examples of the original here. If you love neuroscience or kids or both, consider throwing them some cash like I have.

No conflicts of interest here: I don’t know Erica or Jessica and I doubt they know I exist, I just think this project is awesome!

Study: Mice fed a high fat diet show evidence of neuron rewiring – AAAS MemberCentral post

Mouse (image credit: Rama)

A recent study by Alexandre Benani and colleagues published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows evidence that feeding adult mice a high-fat diet quickly remodels neuronal circuits within a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and also causes these mice to limit their caloric intake.

Read more of this post at AAAS MemberCentral.

Study explores multiple roles of oxytocin- AAAS MemberCentral post

Harmony before Matrimony” by James Gillray

Oxytocin (or the ‘love hormone’ as it’s often called) is an important regulator of sexual arousal, pair bonding, and maternal behavior. Oxytocin also regulates non-reproductive social behaviors, which can be artificially manipulated by changing oxytocin levels. When people playing investment games in a research setting inhaled oxytocin, they became both more trusting and more empathetic towards other players. But can too much oxytocin be a bad thing? 

Read more of my AAAS MemberCentral post here