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Multitasking: Brain Drain or Boost in Efficiency?

Difficulty
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites

There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. ISEF-affiliated fairs often require an Informed Consent Form for every participant who is questioned or observed. In all cases, the experimental design must be approved by officials from the fair (SRC/IRB) prior to the commencement of experiments or surveys. The Science Buddies resource, Projects Involving Human Subjects, has more information, along with links to the official ISEF rules.

Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues

Abstract

Think it's a good idea to plug into iTunes, surf the Web, or watch TV while doing homework or trying to read? Lots of people do it and claim that jumping from one activity to another keeps their attention level up and even gives their brain some time to "relax" between the more challenging tasks. Just how efficient is multitasking? In this project, you'll find out after testing the ability of volunteers to successfully do two or more things at once.

Objective

The goal of this project is to investigate the question: Can people really pay attention to two things at once?

Credits

Darlene E. Jenkins, Ph.D.

Sources

The idea for this project is from this DragonflyTV podcast:

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Multitasking: Brain Drain or Boost in Efficiency?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 29 July 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/HumBeh_p022.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Multitasking: Brain Drain or Boost in Efficiency?. Retrieved July 29, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/HumBeh_p022.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30

Introduction

Watch DragonflyTV perception video Click here to watch a video of this investigation, produced by DragonflyTV and presented by pbskidsgo.org.

To get started, check out the project video. It shows how two students, Maddy and Martina, designed an experiment to determine how much their volunteers noticed about their environment when they were busy focusing on kicking and passing a soccer ball to each other. You might be surprised with their findings—the volunteers in the experiment were. Then, read on to see how to set up a similar type of multitasking experiment of your own and discover how well your friends can do more than one thing at a time.

We've all heard that people shouldn't talk on cell phones, eat, put on make up, or read maps while driving. These are obviously risky types of multitasking. Common sense tells us—and research confirms—that safe driving requires the driver's undivided attention. But what do scientists say about multitasking in other situations like studying while listening to music or scanning emails while talking on the phone?

Researchers have found that when we alternate between mental tasks we activate the prefrontal cortex, an "executive control" region of our brain's outer layer. This region acts like an air traffic controller who must set priorities and manage incoming requests from dozens of planes at a busy airport. The process takes energy, focus, and time. Hardly a mental break for your brain.

According to scientific studies, it seems our brains generally prefer to think about one thought at a time and not flit rapidly from one focus to the next. Scientists distinguish between "multitasking," when we do more than one thing at the same time like studying and listening to music, and "task switching" when we rapidly change in succession from one unrelated task to another like a busy receptionist answering phones between sending emails and welcoming visitors. Both are inefficient processes for our brains according to their studies.

Researchers who map the brain's activity find that even short breaks in focus when we are working or studying forces our brain to a temporary halt. The executive control center must take the time first to process the request and then to redirect energy to other areas of the brain that will execute the switch in intellectual gears. When we decide to return our focus to the original work, more time is lost while our brain warms back up to restart the original task. Apparently multitasking and task switching are not the great time savers people often claim.

Even our natural behaviors remind us that our noggins normally disdain distraction. For instance, to really zero in on a faint sound in the distance we instinctively stop moving, shut our eyes, and focus entirely on listening carefully. Essentially, your brain does not multitask when it's time to pay attention. Fortunately, our brains can be somewhat flexible and forgiving about multitasking depending on the circumstances. If one task is very familiar to us, then there is less brain interruption when changing focus between a series of similar tasks, the studies showed. It's also less time consuming for our brain to combine automated physical chores with some types of higher mental activity. That's why, for example, we can wash the dishes and watch TV fairly easily.

In the video, Maddy and Marina examined how much detail their volunteers noticed about an unexpected event, a girl walking and juggling around them, while the circle of volunteers counted the number of times they could keep the soccer ball in play within their circle. Maddy and Martina found that no one really noticed too much detail about the wandering juggler, even though the volunteers thought they remembered the girl once they were asked about her. Maddy and Martina concluded that when people are focused on one activity, they don't pick up on too many details of other events, even unusual ones, going on around them.

In Maddy and Martina's experiment, the volunteers weren't intentionally trying to multitask, although the results showed that the volunteers were not very successful in doing two things at once. But what happens when volunteers are asked to try to multitask? Would the results be any better?

In this activity, you will ask your volunteers to complete a simple math test in two different environments. One will be quiet with no distraction, the other will be filled with background music so that it forces the volunteers to multitask. You'll then compare how well the volunteers accomplished the same type of test under each condition. We have provided below a basic experimental plan to get you started, but you can easily customize your experiment to fit your own interests. We've also included additional hints on how to set up different types of studies related to multitasking. Finally, it's a good idea to do some background research on multitasking, task switching, and the brain regions that help you accomplish both. You'll find a list of suggested terms and key questions in the next section.

Now, put down that iPod and concentrate, please. Your brain will be less stressed and most grateful.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
  • Multitasking
  • Task switching
  • Executive brain activities
  • Brain lobes
  • Brain cortex
  • Prefrontal lobe
Questions
  • What are examples of multitasking and task switching activities? What are common misconceptions about each?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of trying to do two things at the same time?
  • What parts of the brain are associated with multitasking or task switching?
  • What types of activities lend themselves to successful multitasking? What types of activities are better to do with full concentration?

Bibliography

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:
  • Two simple math tests with similar problems (each should take about 10 minutes to complete)
  • Portable music players with head sets for each volunteer
  • Watch or timer
  • Room or area with tables and chairs for volunteers to take tests
  • Note pads
  • Pens/pencils
  • At least 10 volunteers for your study (the more volunteers, the better). Note: To see how many volunteer subjects you need, check out the Science Buddies resource Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?.

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Experimental Procedure

Working with Human Test Subjects

There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. Fairs affiliated with Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) often require an Informed Consent Form (permission sheet) for every participant who is questioned. Consult the rules and regulations of the science fair that you are entering, prior to performing experiments or surveys. Please refer to the Science Buddies documents Projects Involving Human Subjects and Scientific Review Committee for additional important requirements. If you are working with minors, you must get advance permission from the children's parents or guardians (and teachers if you are performing the test while they are in school) to make sure that it is all right for the children to participate in the science fair project. Here are suggested guidelines for obtaining permission for working with minors:

  1. Write a clear description of your science fair project, what you are studying, and what you hope to learn. Include how the child will be tested. Include a paragraph where you get a parent's or guardian's and/or teacher's signature.
  2. Print out as many copies as you need for each child you will be surveying.
  3. Pass out the permission sheet to the children or to the teachers of the children to give to the parents. You must have permission for all the children in order to be able to use them as test subjects.
  1. Recruit your volunteers and let them know the date and time of the experiment.
  2. Remind them to bring their music players with a head set.
  3. Prepare two simple math tests using addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Each test should take about 10 minutes to complete, should be equally challenging, and have the same number of problems. Make enough copies so that every person has his/her own copy of each test to write on.
  4. The day of the test, explain briefly to the volunteers what they will be doing. Tell them they should not feel rushed since you will be giving them plenty of time to finish. You should note the start and finish times of each volunteer (or have each volunteer record their start and finish times on the test).
  5. Ask half your volunteers to take the first test without their music players on, and the other half should take the same test while listening to their favorite tunes. Each person can pick their own music to listen to during the test. Tip: instruct your volunteers to keep the headphone volume low enough so that others can't hear their music.
  6. When everyone if finished with the first test, reverse the groups so now those volunteers who took the "quiet" test can listen to their music players and vice versa. Hand out the second version of the math test and give the groups the same amount of time to take the test as you did the first time. Again, record the start and stop times of each volunteer (or have each volunteer record their start and finish times on the test).
  7. Ask your volunteers to write down how they felt they did on the first test versus the second test.
Analyzing Your Data
  1. Correct the tests and record the total points for each volunteers' test one and test two.
  2. Make a table showing the total scores for each volunteer during the "quiet" test and the "noisy" test. Also show the total time required to take each test for each volunteer. Calculate an average overall score and time for each group of volunteers for each of the tests; add this information to your table.
  3. Do you find any differences between the scores of the tests taken with or without background music for the individual volunteers? How does that compare to the overall group results? Was there any difference in the time required to finish the tests?
  4. Did listening to music affect the ability of the volunteers to answer the math questions? Are you surprised at the results? Why or why not?
  5. Did the results match the expectations of each volunteer on how well they thought they did on the tests?
  6. For help with data analysis and setting up tables, see Data Analysis & Graphs.
  7. For a guide on how to summarize your results and write conclusions based on your data, see Conclusions.

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Variations

  • Customize your experiment. Repeat the experiment but change the type of test and/or distraction activity. Use a reading comprehension test instead of a math test, for example. Or, try music that you choose so the volunteers all listen to the same music instead of their own music selections. You could also intentionally pick music you know they will all like or dislike to see how that affects their ability to concentrate on the test. You might consider adding an "unexpected" event to your experiment like the example in the video while the volunteers are already busy multitasking.
  • Task switching. Do a "task switching" experiment instead of (or in addition to) a multitasking experiment. Have your volunteers start another math test, and then interrupt them every 30-60 seconds to have them read from a scientific magazine or newspaper article for a few minutes before going back to the math test. Repeat this start and stop pattern several times during the experiment. At the end, score the math tests and ask the volunteers to write a short essay or fill in the blank questions about the article. Are the math results similar to those from your experiment on multitasking? How well did the students do on the article quiz? Ask the students to describe how they felt when trying to switch between two types of tests versus when they could focus on the math test alone.
  • Effect of age. Would age affect either of these types of experiments? You can find out by giving the tests to different age groups of volunteers. Try to get at least 10 people of similar ages in each group and people who are young (under 30 years old), middle-aged (40 to 60 years old) and seniors (65 years or older). See the following website for an example of one student's science fair project related to testing the multitasking capability of senior drivers: http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20040114/ScienceFairZone.asp.
  • Gender differences. Do girls and boys show differences in the ability to multitask? Test this by repeating your experiment with groups of similarly aged boys and girls. Compare their scores, summarize your results, and state your conclusions.

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Ask an Expert

The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

Ask an Expert

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