Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

Question: What happens to the mind when we get used to paying partial attention?

Gary Small: We all know we multitask. I mean this is a common part of everyday life and you know I like to drink my coffee in the morning and read the newspaper, so that’s a form of multitasking. Now of course I don’t do that when I’m driving because that is dangerous, so we know of many dangers of multitasking. We know that middle-age people who multitask don’t do as well as people who are focusing on one task and we also know that young people who multitask, they can complete the task more rapidly, but they make more errors, so we’re becoming faster, but sloppier when we multitask, but there is another mental process related to multitasking that’s often called partial continuous attention. Here we’re not just doing two or three tasks at the same time, we’re scanning the environment for new information at any point and this is a process that I think is becoming very popular now that we have all these new electronic communication gadgets, cell phones, PDAs, computers, the internet, so many people are at their workstation or at home in bed because we don’t have much demarcation these days between leisure life and work life, and they may be having a conversation on the phone or with someone next to them and they’re waiting for a little ding or a little sound or a new message that might be more interesting and exciting than whatever mental activity they’re engaged in at that time. Now there's dangers to that I think. Certainly there are social dangers. You can certainly insult someone if you answer your cell phone in the middle of a conversation, but I think it also may be a state of heightened mental stress because we’re constantly scanning the environment and we know from other studies that chronic stress is not good for the brain. In fact, laboratory animals under stress have smaller memory cells in the hippocampus. Human volunteers injected with stress hormones like cortisol have temporary impairment in learning and recall, so I think partial continuous attention it’s hard to resist, probably our dopamine circuits that are involved in reward systems drive it because we want that exciting new bit of information, but we have to be aware of it and try to manage it better.

Question: How can we counteract the effects of partial continuous attention?

Gary Small: I think the first step to managing partial continuous attention, or PCA if you want to give it an acronym, is to be aware of it and to certainly be aware of how it affects our face-to-face communication skills, how it can affect somebody personally. Not long ago I said to my teenage daughter, “You know, Rachel, when I’m talking to you and you’re texting at the same time I just don’t get the sense that you’re paying attention to my conversation.” So she looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry Dad, I don’t do this with my teachers.” And then looked right down and continued her texting. Now I can laugh about that, and she is an adolescent and it’s a different culture to some extent. It’s tolerated more in their age group, but I think there are still social gaffes that people get into as a result of partial continuous attention. I think another thing that’s important to do is to take breaks from the computer and if we’re having a face-to-face meeting maybe turn off some of the gadgets and not be tempted to be distracted by them.

In an age of cell phones, PDAs, and computers, the intense mental stress of continually paying only partial attention may be decreasing our memory capacity.

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