Saturday, September 05, 2009

Is Multitasking Bad for Your Brain?

This morning I was perusing an August issue of Science. My husband walked into the kitchen and switched the radio on to NPR's Car Guys, then began grousing about what idiots they were and what bad advice they gave. So there I am, reading, drinking coffee (I don't suppose that counts), listening to those Car Guys yuk it up, and degrousing the spouse (that's what you do when you acknowledge someone's rants with sympathetic murmurings of assent). Oddly enough, in one of those 'bloggable moments' that those of you who blog know so well, the magazine article I was reading was "Multitasking--Bad for the Brain?"(1).

A word or two first about multitasking--I don't know when the word was coined, but in this day and age of electronic devices, the skill ranks right up there with missing sleep to multitask as one of the characteristics of New Age success. The ability to text, talk on the phone, work on the computer, and troubleshoot simultaneously is the mark of a modern manager (and that, Jean C, is why we pay you the big bucks!). More than once I've cited 'inability to multitask' as one of the job requirements that a patient applying for disability can no longer perform.

I personally go into what I call overwhelm mode if called on to multitask too long. Bi-tasking I can do, fielding an urgent message say in the middle of an exam, or mixing pancake batter while talking on the phone. Well actually, the latter has proven problematic in the past. But layering calls from the ER, prescriptions, annual exams, work-ins, and a kid crisis in a single afternoon puts me over the top with agitation.

So here's what Stanford scientists found when they compared 19 heavy habitual media multitaskers with 22 persons who generally limit their electronic input. The subjects were tested for their ability to filter out irrelevant environmental information as well as "irrelevant representations in memory." In addition, all the volunteers were also tested for the ease with which they switched tasks. Those heavy duty multitaskers (IM'ing, skyping, texting, gum-chewing fools no doubt) were more distractible and less able to switch tasks midstreams than their colleagues who characteristically uni- or bi-tasked.

The obvious question that arises from this study: Do multitaskers scramble their brains in the multitasking or are they just a flighty, distractible bunch from the get-go who are attracted by nature to a 3-ring cognitive circus?

My reaction to my a.m. over-stimulus? I excused myself ASAP to go blog, taking my IPhone along so I could respond to a text that just came through from Jean C.
(1) Ophir, E, et al. "Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers." Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009 Aug 24.

1 comment:

LexyG said...

I am reposting with corrections now that I know what to may delete the other entry. :-)

Hi. I found your blog tonight and I have decided that simply driving a vehicle is multi-tasking. In my husband's truck today, with clutch, gears, and in heavy traffic -- it was just brain overload!

I was already overwhelmed after a doctor's visit and a foreboding sense of what part of me is going to fall apart next. My MRI results show my liver is twice normal size with cysts, but also they found something wrong with my bone marrow. And shows arthritis in my lumbar spine, that's how I found your blog.

I am only 51 and have always been healthy as a horse! I find there are new areas where I no longer feel competent for even single-tasking. I was thinking it was the depression combined with this liver disease which contributed to the brain fog where I can no longer connect the dots. I noticed my memory issues became more prominent when I was diagnosed with diabetes, but now I am thinking…menopause and the social isolation you discussed, as I cannot readily think of the words I need to say. How long does menopause normally last?

So, I hope there is help for me. I love your blog and although I use Facebook (“what is the word”…oh, exclusively), I will try to find you on Twitter...but NOT at the same time!
Thanks for listening,

2006-PBC Stage 3 w/fatty liver
2007-quit smoking