I don’t usually pay much heed to what fashion magazines say, but flicking through the pages of November’s edition of Marie Claire (bought partly because the free tube of hand cream on the front reminded me of a tube of paint), I came across a snippet that neatly drew together a few things I’ve heard and read elsewhere.
5.TOO MUCH MULTITASKING
Simultaneously reading your email, chatting on the phone and doing bottom firming exercises at your desk isn’t necessarily productive. ‘Multitasking overstimulates the dopamine system,’ says Professor Paul Gilbert, consultant psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind […]. ‘Dopamine is a chemical linked to rewards, drive and vitality and is easily depleted. When stores are low, this can lead to listlessness and depression,’ he explains. Professor Gilbert suggests balancing dopamine release by stimulating your endorphin system – the positive emotional pathway in the brain responsible for well-being. Try gentle activities such as gardening, hiking or meditation.
from “12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time,” by Anna Magee, Marie Claire, November 2011
(I’ve been doing some gardening today. Maybe that’s why I felt like doing the washing up straight after dinner. Mind you, I wouldn’t describe persuading around 55 kg of soil and potatoes out of their growing bag and into a wheelbarrow as an especially gentle activity…)
Obviously, the word “dopamine” is one that leapt out at me – but it was the idea that multi-tasking depletes stocks of this crucial brain chemical that really made me stop and think. One of the many things that were mentioned at the Cure Parkinson’s Trust Patient Meeting was a study about how dual tasking negatively affected the tendency to freeze in Parkinson’s patients.
There are several articles on this topic, but I did find a handy “… Review of Dual-Task Walking Deficits in People with Parkinson’s Disease”, which does mention dopamine depletion as a possible mechanism for the problems experienced by people with Parkinson’s – but is rather more cautious than Professor Gilbert at ascribing all of the blame to low levels of dopamine, noting that the same problem is sometimes encountered in the patient’s “on-state” (i.e. when the drugs that replace the missing dopamine are working). Alternative mechanisms discussed are “reduced movement automaticity” (“the ability to perform a skilled movement without conscious or executive control or attention directed toward the movement”) and “nondopaminergic pathology, which may affect both gait and cognition. It is increasingly appreciated that the pathology of PD is not limited to dopamine but includes other neurotransmitter systems […]”.
So it’s probably not best to rely wholly on Marie Claire for the science bits.
As to why the research has focussed on dual tasking rather than the more general multitasking, my theory is that restricting the number of simultaneous activities to a mere two allows men to participate in the studies. After all, everyone knows that it’s women who are better at multi-tasking… even if it’s not, apparently, very good for us.