Does multitasking change your brain?

There has been quite a bit of interest in multitasking of late, most recently with a series of posts over at the Britannica Blog with contributions from Maggie Jackson, Howard Rheingold, Heather Gold, and Nicholas Carr.  The posts are quite interesting, and dovetail nicely with the thoughtful presentation by Frank Schirrmacher over at Edge entitled “The Age of the Informavore.”  I highly recommend the entire set to get an idea of what popular thinking is about multitasking.

From our perspective here at the Core, the real question is one that Schirrmacher addresses in his talk: is multitasking changing our brains?  Nicholas Carr’s infamous Atlantic piece “Is Google Making us Stupid” really set the stage, and it bears repeating that everything that we do affects the way that our brains work.  Especially so when we have something like multitasking that is inherently rewarding.  But the unanswered question is whether it is good for you.  The science is unresolved.

One of the most provocative observations can be found in a recent paper by in PNAS by Ophir et al. that we read in journal club a few weeks ago.  The authors looked at the ability of heavy and light media multitaskers to maintain cognitive control. It turns out that

…heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions.

One cautionary note; the authors compared people who were already heavy or light multitaskers and there is no way to determine from this set of data whether the effects that they have observed are a consequence of multitasking or set the stage for becoming an effective multitasker.  This is an important distinction, and the authors themselves are acutely aware of the implications of the issue.  They conclude with some cautionary remarks.

With the diffusion of larger computing screens supporting multiple windows and browsers, chat, and SMS, and portable media coupled with social and work expectations of immediate responsiveness, media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous. These changes are placing new demands on cognitive processing, and especially on attention allocation. If the growth of multitasking across individuals leads to or encourages the emergence of a qualitatively different, breadth-biased profile of cognitive control, then the norm of multiple input streams will have significant consequences for learning, persuasion, and other media effects. If, however, these differences in cognitive control abilities and strategies stem from stable individual differences, many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment. The determination of cause and effect and the implications of these differing strategies for other types of information processing are critical issues for understanding cognition in the 21st century.

I couldn’t agree more.


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  1. Pingback: How is the internet changing the way that you think? « Neuroethics at the Core

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