Friday, May 9, 2014

You’re Multitasking? That’s Costing Your Cognitive Brain

Wired Man by Mike Licht on Flickr

You have a big load of work to get done tonight? I hope you are not planning on multitasking. In the face of all the technology available to use in this day and age, it might seem that you’ll actually get some progress done. But, studies show that juggling many tasks at a time is actually slowing us down. It allows our brain to disconnect from the important things and impair our cognitive control. About 2% can actually multitask efficiently. And the other 98%? Sorry, but you are just lowering your IQ by 10 points.

As a student, I understand the stress of societal and parental expectations because I, too, have stayed up late to study for a test or finish an assignment. Before conducting research on this topic, I could say I was the king of multitasking. Although, I may have felt productive I still asked, “Why does my homework take this long? It is 1:00 am!” Well, from personal experience, staying up late was not just because of needing more self control but rather from distractions. Imagine this, you have your favorite sing along song on, you are messaging your friend on Facebook, maybe even texting, and last you have twenty-one math problems to complete. Now, every time you get a message, your computer and/or phone notifies you with a DING! Yeah sounds great, like look how far technology has advanced. Although this might be great, how about we really think about this. Once you are about to get an idea and figure out a problem you keep on getting a message from your friend every 15 seconds. But, let’s be honest, you probably don’t even notice the impact; that multitasking is actually affecting your brain by stopping neural connections.

Author: Brews Ohare
In teenagers, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning and judgement, is not fully developed like in an adult. Rather, teenagers use the amygdala, the part responsible for responding to fear, threats, and danger. This makes it more difficult for teenagers to make good judgements in situations that call for decision making and distractions, and these distractions are happening everywhere. Teenagers are on their electronic devices during school, work, driving, walking, in the bathroom, you name it. In addition, since teenage brains have not fully developed the ability to control impulses, this can be a teenager’s biggest distraction.

Multitasking teaches us to stray away from persistence and rather to just switch to the next task, tab when things start to get difficult. Also, it forces us to endorse in a habit of filling every spare moment with something “productive”. But, your “productivity” causes your brain to shut down neural connections. To restore theses connections, you will have to repeat the thought process, aka “spreading activation.” The bouncing back between tasks slows down the actual task. This was proven in tests conducted at Stanford University by communication professor Clifford Nass, and his two colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner. Three tests were conducted that measured heavy media multitaskers on their ability to ignore, to recall information, and to switch between tasks. In all three tests, non multi-taskers performed better. Multitaskers do not pay attention as well, control memory, and/or switch from one task to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

“But I always listen to music when I am doing my homework, is that wrong?” Well, A little music never hurt anyone, and according to NPR, they agree. Multitasking can be good in small amounts. A lot of the time people say that music can help them focus. This could be because it keeps you alert but still allows you brain to block it out and remain connected with the main task. This works because it is not forcing itself into your consciousness. Unlike cellular devices and other IM websites that extract you from your learning and concentration, every time it buzzes.

But music is an exception, not the rule. Most media use is taking away from our learning, disconnecting us from productivity, and forcing bad habits. Researchers are still studying whether media multitaskers are born with the inability to concentrate or if they are damaging their cognitive mind by juggling too much.



  1. Fascinating topic, Taylor! I think we all multitask to some extent, even while we know that our effectiveness is diminished. Pew Research did a survey in which experts were asked whether the increasing consumption of media will have an effect on the population by 2020. Many respondents felt that brains will adapt and people will be better at multitasking, solving problems, and sharing knowledge. Others, however thought that we will lose the capacity to do deep thinking and solve complex problems as our attention spans decrease. Do you think it is possible that cognitive abilities will not suffer as young people's brains adapt to being online all of the time? Thank you, Taylor, for raising the issue of the consequences of heavy media consumption. -- Ms. Riches

  2. It's also been shown that after an interruption, it takes fifteen minutes to get back to deep concentration. It's a real problem in the workplace, where the cubicle environment, which can encourage communication between coworkers, can also prove a distraction and producitivity drain.

  3. Wow Taylor! This is amazing! It is so true though! When I do my homework and I am texting someone, I always find myself staying up later than I should because I am still working on homework! I just have never related the two... I know my parents have told me to not use my phone while doing homework but I never listened. Maybe I should start listening, haha! Do you text while doing homework?

  4. Nice Post Taylor! As I read this, I was listening to music, had the television on in the background, and was interrupted by the occasional snapchat. I have always tried to get in an episode or two while doing homework and the nights that I do, I usually stay up longer than I intend to. Television seems to be the biggest distracter for me. I also usually listen to music, which generally helps me focus and block out noise, but can also distract me at times when a good song comes on. What is your biggest distracter during homework? How do you focus?

  5. Fantastic Article! I love every student who claims they are great multi-taskers to read this article. As someone commented earlier, it takes about 10-15 minutes each time we need to refocus and "restore th[ose] connections and repeat the thought process, aka “spreading activation.”" Talk about these 'tiny' distractions being really big distractions.

    I really like how you distinguish self-control from distractions. Did you know that with every 'ding' from a message, or every notification, there is another biological trigger happening in her body that actually makes you physically addicted to these notifications? We are training our bodies to become dopamine addicts. It's going to take more than self-control to override this addiction. It starts with knowledge of what your body and brain are actually doing.

    Again, great article!

  6. Taylor, I'm so glad you tackled this topic. It sounds like you have learned a few things about your own study habits in the process (and I hope have made some changes?). In terms of "self-control vs. distractions" could you not exercise self-control by removing the distractions before you begin studying? How about doing homework in a quiet space without your phone or a TV nearby? I remember a few years ago we did a homework study in the middle school, and kids recorded their studying habits and hours. A few students tested themselves by studying as they normally do for one week, and then the next week they put all electronics away during study time. It won't surprise you that they discovered they were far more efficient and their work was of higher quality when they removed the distractions. Exactly what your research shows! "Task switching" is where we lose so much time. One study suggeststhat "even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time." Yikes! That's a lot of lost time. It will be interesting to follow this over the next few decades and see if our brains adapt. The Pew research Ms. Riches mentions, and the continuing research at Stanford that you mention at the end of the piece should reveal more as time goes on. I'll be watching for the reports! In the mean time, what practical advice would YOU give teenagers about their multitasking habits?

  7. Taylor, what an interesting and intriguing topic. I will admit one of my favorite things to do when I get home from school is do homework while watching basketball or soccer. I really feel like I work well that way, but after reading this I think I will try to shy away from my old method of doing homework and start to just do it in my room without any distractions. I can't believe that by multitasking I am lowering my IQ by 2%. Crazy!! Now since we are just in the early stages of the electronic era, do you think that maybe over time our generation will get so good at multi tasking that we won't even be effected by it? Also do you know of an other exceptions to that multitasking rule not including Music? Like I said before I couldn't stop reading this.

  8. I loved the article Taylor it was a topic that definitely needed to be blogged about and you did a great job. It was a great article and easy to follow along with because you went into so much detail. Now, to be honest I am the type to listen to music and maybe text once in a while working on my homework. I had no idea that I was being affected by it so much. Even though I know about this now I feel as if I will still probably won't break out of my old habit of "multitasking" while doing homework. Do you think there is an easy way of not texting your friend or listening to music while doing homework? In other words do you think there is a solution that will work for everyone?

  9. Hey Taylor, I feel like this topic relates to me pretty well. When I do homework, I often listen to music while I do it. I feel like this slows down my progress because I have to focus on two different things. When I don't listen to music and focus everything on homework, I tend to finish faster. Even though listening to music slows me down, do you think there are noises or other actions that can improve one's focus?

  10. Hi Taylor, great article! I'm happy to hear that music can sometimes be an exception to distraction. I listen to music while doing homework, however I personally find that it's distracting while trying to read. Is there an average added amount of time it takes someone to complete a task if they're multitasking (compared to if they weren't)?


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