Jumping from screen to screen, checking the smart phone while typing on the laptop, or glancing back and forth from the TV to iPad – this is a way of life for many who feel they achieve more by handling overlapping activities at once. Many feel multitasking makes them more productive but a new study shows may not be working smarter, it may actually decrease gray matter in the brain.
Approximately two-thirds of teens use a more than one screen while watching TV. (The writer working on this article is watching TV while working.) Second screening, as the practice is called, is so commonplace as people check texts, email, play video games and more while doing something else.
However, recent research indicates that multitasking with multiple technologies may change the structure of the brain and reshape brain activity. Conducted by University of Sussex scientists, the study found that people who regularly use several media devices simultaneously have a lower density of gray matter in one particular region of the brain compared to those who just use one device.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) area of the brain was actually smaller in those who used the most screens or electronic devices at once. This is the brain part that controls emotions and is used in decision-making, controlling impulses, reasoning and empathy.
To research the brain activity of multitaskers, the Sussex neuroscientists took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or brain scans of 75 adults. They also were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their use of technology devices, including computers and mobile phones, as well as television and even print media. It was during the scans that they determine that those who used more devices had smaller density of gray matter in the ACC.
It is not clear if multitasking leads to a reduction in the brain matter or people with smaller ACCs are more comfortable using more devices. The researchers pointed out that additional studies are necessary to determine if multitasking really does lead to reductions in gray matter or if people with smaller gray matter are more likely to multitask. The researchers did note that it is “plausible” that too much technology can be damaging to the brain.
The reality is that multitasking with multiple devices is more prevalent, as researcher Kepkee Loh pointed out. “Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure,” said Loh. He also noted that a longitudinal study is needed to figure out the direction of causation.
While the Sussex study was the first to look at these aspects, previous studies have shown that brain stimulation by physical and social surroundings can enrich or change the brain structure. Other studies have shown that brains in new and richer environments have higher rates of synapses between neurons. In addition, previous studies have found a connection between switching through various technologies and depression and anxiety. One additional study showed that jugglers actually increase their brain matter as they practice, which is believed to help them speed up their movements.
Until more is known, its might be a good idea to minimize the second screening. If it turns out it may decrease brain matter, working smarter may not involve multitasking.
By Dyanne Weiss