If your favourite pastime is fussing with your phone while cuddling with your laptop and watching TV, you might be dooming your brain to a life of distraction.
“Simultaneously using mobile phones, laptops, and other media devices could be changing the structure of our brains,” say Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai, researchers at the University of Sussex in England.
In one study, Loh and Kanai asked 75 healthy people how often they were dividing their attention between different forms of technology, like by talking on the phone while playing on the internet or texting while watching TV.
Then they underwent brain scans. Something startling emerged: A region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex — which is associated with attention — was smaller in the heavy multitaskers.
The authors believe their findings provide a structural explanation for why heavy multitaskers have been found to be worse at regulating their emotions or maintaining attention.
Still, the study of how multitasking affects the brain is quite young.
“The exact mechanisms of these changes are still unclear,” Loh said.
This research builds on studies of how multitasking changes our brains, principally done by the late Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass.
His work centered on the nature of neuroplasticity, which shows that our brains change with our behaviour. Engaging in activities that require concentration, like reading books for 30 minutes at a time and meditation, allows your brain to pay attention longer. On the other hand, switching between tasks all the time trains you to keep on switching, even if you’re trying to concentrate.
“Our brains have to be retrained to multitask,” Nass told NPR. “Brains are remarkably plastic, remarkably adaptable. We train our brains to a new way of thinking. And then when we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic, but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”
This means that multitaskers are predisposed to distraction (which is another form of task switching), even if they shut off their phone, find a quiet space, and work by themselves.
“The people we talk with continually said, ‘Look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything, and I am laser-focused,'” Nass said. “And unfortunately, they have developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”
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