Multitasking Can Strain Your Brain

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A report from the researchers at Stanford University found those likely to experience rigorous daily multitasking are negatively impacting their cognitive state

Our increasingly media- and technology-saturated world is leading people to a state of constant multitasking that puts the human cognition system in a disruptive state. So claims an article published in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

The report—“Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” written by Stanford University’s Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass and Anthony D. Wagner—claims heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability than a group of users who multitasked lightly.

The research team conducted tests of 262 college undergraduates, dividing them into two groups. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the unexpected result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, which researchers concluded was likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

The results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is “associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing,” the report concluded.

Nass told the Associated Press the findings have social implications for a society increasingly focused on multitasking on a daily basis. “The huge finding is, the more media people use the worse they are at using any media. We were totally shocked,” he told AP, adding that the results present a “chicken and egg” dilemma. “Is multitasking causing them to be lousy at multitasking, or is their lousiness at multitasking causing them to be multitaskers? Is it born or learned?”

In an interview with Reuters, Nass said heavy multitaskers should stop and consider employing technologies that help save time and reduce the potentially negative side effects of too much multitasking, from simple stress and information overload to car accidents caused by talking or texting while on the road. “”Society is developing tools all the time to make multitasking easier,” he told the news agency. “The question is whether that’s a good thing.”

Cutting back on multitasking may not be an easy option for small business owners, however. A July survey by online payroll specialist SurePayroll found small to medium-size businesses are being forced to do more with less in a constrictive economy, but an increase in multitasking is hurting the quality of service at some midmarket companies. The survey found 88 percent of small business owners think multitasking is now a key component in running a successful business that business owners should embrace.

Despite the widespread acceptance of multitasking, the survey revealed one in four small business owners reports that multitasking in some way hinders their working ability. Multitasking skeptics cited everything from decreased quality in work to tasks taking longer than in the past to becoming burned out more quickly. While the majority of businesses feel a need to embrace multitasking, respondents said concentrating on multiple tasks had negative impacts as well, including quality dilution, longer time frames to accomplish tasks and difficulty concentrating.

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