Multi-tasking. In today’s busy world it’s something everyone has to be able to do at some point. While texting and driving is a bad example of multi-tasking, other ways that we get more than one thing done at a time could be cooking a meal while helping a child with homework, or answering emails while on a conference calls. There just isn’t enough time to get everything done if we don’t double up on some tasks. There’s been a lot of research on which sex is better at multi-tasking. Men and women think differently and process information differently, but a new study might give women the advantage in multi-tasking.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich, investigated how men and women did two tasks at the same time. One was a cognitive task, the other was physical. It’s called the Stroop Test and it involves having a test subject look at a word that is the name of a color, such as “Red” but is printed in a different color ink, for instance blue ink. They are asked as each color name appears to name the color of the ink, not the word. It’s both easy and tricky at the same time. Doing it while walking on a treadmill is where the investigation of multi-tasking came in. Most people don’t really pay attention to arm swing or gait. We just walk around, hopefully not falling down or bumping into things. When someone has to concentrate on a problem and walk at the same time, the way we walk changes.
Both right arm swing while walking and language comprehension happen in the same part of the brain, the left hemisphere. Study co-author Tim Killeen, a neuroscientist from the University Hospital Balgrist in Switzerland told AFP, "Women under 60 seemed to be resistant to this effect, as they were able to perform the verbal task with no change in arm swing. In men and older women, the verbal task appears to overwhelm the left brain to the extent that the movement of the arm on the right is reduced. We were surprised to find such a consistent gender difference in how two relatively simple behaviours — cognitive control and arm swing — interact with one another"
In a bit of scientific serendipity the original point of the study was to analyze gait in healthy people with infrared cameras in hopes of developing methods to treat those with walking disorders. Instead they came up with another entry in the battle of the sexes. They used infrared cameras to record the treadmill walking patterns of 83 healthy people, aged 18 to 80. When just walking along, both arms swing normally, in symmetry. Adding in the word test threw off the symmetry in the right arms of men and older women.
A possible reason for the differences in the arm swing symmetry between men and women under age 60 could be due to hormones. Men don’t have as much estrogen as women. However, as women age and menopause occurs, their levels of estrogen decrease, and this was the same time period that showed the women’s lead over men in this task wane. Much of the previous research on multitasking differences in men and women has been varied, with some studies giving the edge to men and others to women. The video below explains more about the Stroop test and how the brain processes competing information.