There are several. A 2010 study found a significant correlation in the ability of individuals with a specific gene known by the acronym COMT to perform a task-switching activity. The COMT gene has been directly linked with dopamine, which is associated with good feelings… and focus. This jibes with common sense: are you more efficient when you are calm and feel good than when you are harried and feel anxious? Of course you are.
This dynamic also captures the challenges inherent to theories of causation in genetic science. It’s possible that the study participants with the COMT gene did better on the test primarily because they felt more relaxed. Does this make COMT the multitasking gene, or just the calmness gene? Fortunately, most civilians (read: non-scientists) are mostly interested in how their genes may affect them personally. In this case, the effect of COMT can be applied to task-switching just as well as calmness.
True multitasking is when a computer has more than one Central Processing Unit (CPU) carrying out multiple tasks in parallel, i.e., simultaneously. A computer doesn’t make mistakes; it only works slower or faster. A human, however, will perform at a lower standard of quality – and make more errors – if less attention is given to a task.
When we talk about multitasking among people, we are talking about task-switching. (This is what the 2010 study specifically studied.) Task-switching is the ability to efficiently toggle between two or more tasks. The most obvious challenge of task-switching is how long it takes for the person to resume the other activity without making mistakes. It is also a larger function of endurance – lots of interruptions can cause annoyance and fatigue.
We all operate within the potential of our genetics, but they usually leave us room for growth. Task-switching is one example. Psychologists define “task-switching” as involuntary – i.e., caused by interruption (like your phone ringing). They define the voluntary transition from one activity to another as cognitive shifting. You can work to improve either. Mindfulness training, psychiatric medication, and other strategies can help you work on focus. Just as these can help keep your mind from wandering, they also help with the degree to which the mind can process an interruption without being too thrown off-course.
No, quite the opposite! The human brain has an incredibly powerful infrastructure for multitasking that involves subconscious activity. This is how it’s possible to drive a car while having a hands-free phone conversation: your body continues to drive while your conscious mind focuses on your conversation. (And yes: humans can chew gum while walking.) Despite centuries of study, the conscious and subconscious brain still hold many mysteries. 25 years ago, we couldn’t even sequence human DNA. Today, genetic scientists are rapidly mapping out all of the ~100,000 traits in the human genome. The brain will likely be the final – and most exciting – frontier of genetic science.
Want to know if you have the multitasking gene? If you’ve taken an at-home DNA test, you can use your test results to uncover a treasure trove of genetic information. All you have to do is to download your raw DNA file from your genetic testing provider (AncestryDNA, 23andMe, etc.). Once you have your information, you can upload it to the Genomelink site for an in-depth report on your genetic profile.
Want to learn more about how your genes influence your personality? Sign up with Genomelink today!