Multi-tasking or threaded cognition peaks in the early twenties. Young children can only pay attention to one thing at a time, and older adults pay attention to too many things. Nine years old through the twenty-somethings are considered optimal years for information and task switching.
Humans engage in multitasking behaviors to seek and search for information, control the environment and manage performance.
Does age affect multitasking skills? Higher order cognition demands executive control thought to be controlled by the frontal cortex, or threaded cognition to achieve multitasking. The cerebral system develops progressively from infancy towards adulthood with most brain processes peaking in efficiency in early adulthood, including multitasking.
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Hunter Gatherer Society
Seeking and foraging behavior came from our ancestral hunter-gatherer society where making sense of the environment came with abilities to do something about it. Multitasking is an evolved instinctual cognitive mechanism with the environment in mind and with a motivation to use the information.
A child’s brain then and now, develops along with the body and as the body’s capabilities develop, so does the cerebral system, and vice versa. A young child may be able to see a threatening stimuli, such as a tiger but not be able to do anything about it. So, the child performs only one behavior, such as run to its mother. The father though, can multi-task. He can see the tiger, tell his child to run and pick up a spear to defend his family.
The Information Age
In the industrial age and, now, in the information age, series of tasks and information retrieval takes many steps and series of steps to achieve complex performance. Academic fields such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, communications and evolution are working on these issues, especially with the introduction of computers and personal communication devices to everyday life.
The brain must perceive and store information units and then use motor units. or neurons which fire to provide movement in the upper body to continue the thread, and produce more acquisition of information which then splinters to other threads and the need for more information. This subset of multitasking research is called human information coordinating behavior (HICB).
Early Twenties is Best
According to Cindy Lustig, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, children can only focus on one thing at a time, until about the age of nine, when they can hold more than one idea at a time. High school students and college students are very efficient at organizing and using information, coordinating processes, prioritizing non-linear dynamic interactions with information and tasks.
How does age affect multitasking skills? Older adults have more trouble with task switching because, according to Lustig, seniors have more chatter or multidimensional tasks on their minds. They have problems with limiting the scope of their attention. In other words, they are paying attention to too many things, whereas the child can only pay attention to one thing. In the above tiger example, the senior human might have the whole family's welfare on their mind and thus be slower to get the spear when needed.