Why are some people better multitaskers?

19 May 2015



I had a fellow nurse at work dare me to rotate my right foot/leg clockwise while drawing a '6'. Also to rotate my right foot /leg clockwise whilst turning my wrist/hand ANTI clockwise as he was 'chuffed' no one would be able to. However, I could do it with absolute ease! First go, second go... No practice. What does this mean? How is my brain different? Is this bad that it's so easy?


Belinda's challenge was put to the Naked Scientists with Max Sanderson sharing his thoughts...

Chris - Can anyone else do this? I've just failed dismally.

Kat - I can't do this. I'm trying and my hands just go the same way.

Richard - I'm just trying to do it.

Kat - Let's see if Max has got anything else because you're a neuroscience kind of guy. What do you reckon is going on here, Max?

Max - Even though I'm a neuroscience kind of guy, I definitely can't do it. So, put that out there. This is one of the oldest of neuroscience party tricks in the book. Not that I have been to a neuroscience party but I'm sure they're great fun. It's a sort of very basic neuro-anatomical aspects of the brain that's been exploited and it's the fact that we have these two hemispheres, left and right. The motor cortex which sort of allows for the execution of these kind of movements is privvy to this split. So, as most people know, the right side controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls muscles on the right side. This is why if you tried it with opposing hands and feet, it should work. The reason why this happens is because the sort of regions within your motor cortex that control your hand and foot is conflicting orders and because it's the same side of the motor cortex, these orders are coming out from sort of going to proverbial battle with the hands usually, winning over. But the interesting part I think comes I why we may be programmed and it's sort of an evolutionary thing. The theory is that when we're sort of on all four limbs, you'd need a coordination between your left hand and your left foot.

Kat - You want your hands and feet going in the same direction.

Max - Exactly. So, it's a coordinated movement. And so, this is sort of an anti-coordination. And so, most people aren't so programmed for that anti-coordination.

Kat - But Belinda says that she could do it quite easily. Is she just kind of some freak?

Max - No. I think she asked them - probably, the question was, is this bad and no, Belinda. This isn't bad. She's not alone. There are a small cohort of people who also share her ability. In fact, there's sort of a spectrum of people. So, some people would be better at it than others, some people will need less training to sort of get the hang of it.

Chris - So, it is the key isn't it Max because you've just said the T word - training - because we can do almost anything if we train hard enough. Because someone asked me the other day, "How was it that when I broke my right hand and I had to write with my left, I could do it after a while." They were almost surprised that they could nonetheless learn to write with their left hand.

Max - Exactly and it all pointed out how sort of plastic - that's what neuroscience people call the brain. There's a lot of plasticity. It can be rewired and restructured. Belinda's brain, whilst we don't have a sort of MRI scanner that can tell us exactly what it is that's different, for some reason, her motor cortex, there's anti-coordination either innately or through training is fine to happen. And so, I think that's it really. Her brain sort of allows this anti-coordination and I think if people did train, people would be surprised at how quickly they could "rewire their brain" as they say.

Kat - Well nice work, Belinda!


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