As I write this post, I’m also watching an episode of Cosmos and, um, teaching a class (they’re doing projects on the rhetoric of Cosmos, so we’re all watching—just don’t tell them what else I’m doing, because I look important standing up here at the computer). I feel pretty proud of myself, multitasking like this, doing work for one job while I’m doing another. But as efficient as I may be at the moment, a new study shows I may also be unwittingly changing my brain, and not for the better.
I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t multitask. What’s the point of smartphones if not to do more than one thing at once? In a civilization where time is money, packing our time full of as much simultaneous activity and productivity as possible seems to be the secret to success. But multi-tasking has been shown to contribute to depression and anxiety, particularly when it comes to media use. It makes sense, doesn’t it? When I have two dozen tabs open, all of them attempting to deliver news—whether it’s the latest about Ebola or Facebook updates about what I missed when I didn’t go to that show last night—I’m inundated with information, much of it grim, and possibilities. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is legit. But beyond our social and psychological wellbeing, it seems that multitasking actually physically affects the brain.
Researchers from the University of Sussex Sackler Center for Consciousness Science used MRIs to examine the brain activity and brain structures of 75 subjects. Those participants, all of whom were adults, answered a questionnaire about their use of media, including traditional print media, television, cell phones, and computers. The people who use media most frequently had less dense gray matter in their brain’s anterior cingulate cortices—the part of the brain that controls emotional and cognitive processing.
While the study suggests a link between brain structure and multi-tasking, the researchers aren’t such which comes first. It’s a chicken and egg scenario: does multitasking actually reduce the density of the brain’s gray matter, or do people with less dense gray matter happen to use a lot of media?
Regardless, it’s actually possible to increase the density of the brain’s gray matter by engaging in activities such as juggling or studying and navigating via actual maps (rather than relying on one’s GPS). Studies also show that reading can enhance brain activity. In short, while multitasking might seem necessary, it’s also important to remember and practice how to focus on one activity at a time. Your brain will thank you for it. Maybe I’ll tell my students what I’ve been up to after all.