Multitasking: Smart or Not?

By Namphuong Nguyen

Everyday, we happen to be multitasking, even when we are not aware of it. From texting and talking to a friend, to even attempting to study for two classes at once. This unawareness is simple, mainly because we are so used to incorporating two tasks at once. Unfortunately, multitasking is not useful to any individual. Multitasking is thought of as an important step to productivity, however that thought was found to be wrong.


This is definitely a shock, but studies have shown our brains are not designed for multitasking! Although we keep thinking we can, we actually – can’t. Our brain are designed to solely focus on one task, and when we multitask, our brain is scattered on thoughts of trying to do Task A and B simultaneously. There are executive control process in our brain which allows us to control of what we are doing. Our prefrontal cortex in our brain is primarily responsible for most of our concentration. There are two phases that occur: Goal Shifting Phase and Rule Activation Phase. Goal Shifting Phase is pretty much when we concentration on doing Task A instead of Task B, while Rule Activation Phase is when our brain focuses on turning off the rules it needs for the first task and turning on the rules on the next one. The duration of time it takes to go through the Rule Activation Phase gradually increases as we steadily believe that multitasking is beneficial. This is quite possibly the reason why going back and forth from one subject to the next seems increasingly difficult over the years because our brains were not designed for this process.


Additionally, although there are short delays when it comes to the Rule Activation Phase, it can become dangerous at times. For example, when one is driving, a tenth of a second of using your phone can make the difference between life and death.

In an experiment of analyzing multitaskers, research has shown that multitaskers happened to have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the portion of the brain that is in charge of decision making and impulse control. Although this experiment did try to attempt the minimize the amounts of variables in this experiment, it is possible that not only just multitasking led to this increase in gray matter.

One reason we love to multitask is because our body releases the neurotransmitter dopamine every time we complete something, regardless of how large or small the accomplishment is. This encourages us to keep multitasking as this dopamine release makes us feel good.


All in all, multitasking is evil and bad! Don’t do it, especially if you can avoid it! Try eliminating the possibilities that can cause you to multitask, and in the end your brain will be maximized to its fullest volume potential!



Children’s understanding of ‘‘implications of ownership’’

By Dan Zhu [original research by Rossano, F., Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M., 2011]

If we take a teddy bear from a three-year-old, is she going to cry, screaming or allow me to take it away from her? How about if the teddy bear is not hers? We want to figure it out by conducting a series of research on Children’s understanding of ‘‘implications of ownership’’.

Each child was tested in three conditions, with two trials per condition. In each condition, a puppet performed actions on a target object, with the crucial difference between conditions being who owned the target object. The conditions were:

–Child: object owned by child.
–Third party: object owned by E2.
–Control: object owned by puppet herself.

The research had children directly involved in interactions involving property rights violations and they could respond potentially nonverbally, which opened the possibility that even 2-year-old children might show some understanding.

The children protested reasonably frequently when their own property was either taken from them or thrown away – several times more often than when anyone else’s property was similarly taken or thrown away.

The 2-year-olds appreciated that a third party’s property rights were being violated, but just did not care as much as they did about their own property. Most often when their own item of clothing was taken or thrown away, they still protested more often when a pup- pet took or threw away a third party’s clothing than when the puppet did this (legitimately) Young children’s emerging understanding of the normative dimension of property as it applies to all persons equally in an agent-neutral manner.

Now we see that two- to 3-year-old children were tested, as this is the age at which they show some normative awareness in the domain of game rules.

Language learning and brain connectivity

By Ana Palma [original research by Chai, Berken, Barbeau, Soles, Callahan, Chen, & Klein, 2016]

Learning a second language is a task that comes more easily to some than others. Some may struggle to read and write while others may have a hard time speaking the new language. Whether it was learned in a classroom, online, or in an immersive environment, there is definitely variability among second language learners that makes the learning process different for each person. What accounts for these individual differences in learning a new language?

This is the question that was asked in a study done at McGill University, where the goal was to investigate the relationship between specific brain parts and the ability to learn a second language. Participants completed 12 weeks of intensive French immersion training and researchers found large individual differences in how much the native English-speaking participants improved their French skills.

The training was done in a classroom setting with instruction in French, conversation partners, and frequent contact with native speakers in Montreal, Quebec. If you’re trying to learn a second language quickly, this is definitely the kind of immersive environment you want. Participants were tested both before and after the training course for their language proficiency in English and French. Instead of using a traditional grading system, participants were assessed using spontaneous speech samples (having them talk about a day at the park or any random topic) and reading samples in both English and French before and after the course.

As predicted, some participants were more successful than others in learning a second language. Experimenters found that differences in brain connectivity (or brain anatomy) played a big factor. Using resting-state fMRI (a technique that measures brain activity while you are awake, but not doing a task), experimenters scanned the brains of the native English speakers before and after the French immersion course. By analyzing the brain in a resting state, they discovered that differences in improvement of reading and speaking were related to pre-existing differences in brain connectivity.

Image: Center for Brain Health UT Dallas

Reading and speaking depended on different regions of the brain. Participants who showed greater improvement in their French speaking skills showed stronger connectivity in the medial inferior frontal gyrus. Participants who showed stronger reading skills had stronger connectivity between the visual word form area and a cluster in the left mid-superior temporal gyrus. Reading and speaking depended on different functional connections, but both skills followed the same principal: greater connectivity between specific areas of the brain before training was associated with better proficiency when learning a second language.

These results suggest that our ability to learn a second language can be predicted by the connectivity in language related regions of the brain. This is very significant for scientists and educators as they could potentially use these findings to determine who will be more successful in learning a second language. Or perhaps, neuroscientists could find a way to facilitate these connections, making the learning process smoother.

Featured Image:

Week 8: The Finale!

We have made it to the end of the course, and we have stellar (mostly finished ;)) blog posts from the students.

What now?

You need a title

We discussed strategies for coming up with good titles. Most importantly, if you want a good title, you need to write a good blog post. But our students have already done that! So we discussed other tips:

  • Make sure your title focuses on what the piece is about
  • Figure out your blog post keywords, and make sure at least the most major one is in the title
  • Give away the punch line: Why should someone read your piece? What will they get out of it?

We gave feedback to each other on titles in class because it’s never too late to revise a little more.

Promote your work

Most people will find out blog posts through Google searches (which is why good titles are crucial), but we also need to play a role in getting readers by promoting our work on social media. We discussed the potential of Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and YouTube in particular, and tips for using these. A post by Paige Jarreau on her blog From The Lab Bench gives three ingredients for social media success:

  • Follow the audiences you want to reach. Listen to them.
  • Engage with the audiences you want to reach. Reply to their posts, re-tweet or share the things they’ve posted. Show them you’re listening.
  • Create good content! You just can’t avoid that one.


Share your social media accounts and your science communication efforts in the comments if you want to connect with others in the class.

For inspiration, Henri Skinner and two of her friends have created a vlog, science girls, to share their science journeys with the rest of us.

You’re a group of talented and fascinating people. Please continue to share what you learn with the world, and of course remember:


As always, you can find the resources we discussed and the form for feedback in the Class 8 slides

Week 7: Know your Audience

This week we discussed the importance of anticipating your blog audience. Who do you expect to read your post — undergraduates? high school students? curious non-scientists? This audience should be constantly present in your mind as you’re writing. The complexity of your ideas and the jargon you use to explain them should be appropriately tailored to your audience.

We watched a neuroscientist, Dr. Bobby Kasthuri, describe his neuroscience research to widely differing audiences — from a 5-year old to an entrepreneur in the same field.

Then students reflected on their current drafts: Who is their intended audience? Is their piece appropriate for that audience? If not, what kinds of changes can improve its appropriateness?

Much of today’s class was focused on peer feedback, since blog posts are due in one week. I’m so looking forward to reading them.

Using Visuals: Student Creations

This week in class we watched a video about new research on crows’ tool use. Students explored the resources for finding and making visuals (in the week 6 slides), and practiced making visuals to depict the crow research. Here are some of their creations:

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 2.41.23 PM.png
By Henri Skinner & Ana Palma
Facts aboutMovember-page-001
By Yanyi Wang

Featured Image: images by Sean MacEntee. CC BY