Media multitasking (you know, when you watch TV while surfing on your laptop as you scroll through your phone) is linked to to less gray matter in the brain, according to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
But before you start panicking, consider that the study didn't determine if one caused the other, which means your time-honored tradition of live-tweeting "Scandal" might still be safe -- at least for now.
"The way we are interacting with the media might be affecting how we think, and this link seems to have a biological basis,” wrote lead researcher Kep Kee Loh of Singapore's Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in an email to The Huffington Post. "Given that this study was cross-sectional in nature ... we are unable to say if smaller [brain regions] lead to more media multitasking or more media multitasking is causing smaller [brain regions].”
Loh recruited 75 healthy adults who were also relatively computer literate and media savvy to participate in the study. They were asked to take a survey to measure how often they spent time multitasking between different kinds of media. Then, they underwent brain scans with an MRI machine. Those who reported heavier media multitasking had less brain matter in the the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) region of the brain, which is believed to play an important role in helping people regulate their emotions -- especially negative ones.
“Reduced ACC gray matter volumes and activations have been implicated in several socio-emotional disorders such as depression, OCD [and] addictive disorders,” explained Loh. "They have also been associated with poorer cognitive abilities.”
While Loh’s study doesn’t establish whether media multitasking caused diminished brain matter, or if people with smaller ACCs are more prone to multitasking, Loh notes that previous studies have linked media multitasking to a diminished ability to control emotions and thoughts, and smaller ACC regions have also been linked to that same inability. Still, more research is needed to establish clear links between all three things: media multitasking, smaller ACC regions and lack of emotional and cognitive control.
Loh plans to expand on the findings by conducting a longitudinal study on the relationship between multitasking and brain matter, which would evaluate the association over a longer period of time, but would still not establish cause. Meanwhile, study co-author Ryota Kanai is taking on a research project about how computer exposure might change brain structure.
While the findings aren’t enough to conclude that media multitasking causes brain shrinkage, there’s plenty of other evidence out there that should make you consider limiting yourself to one screen (or one tab) at a time.
For one, multitasking doesn’t actually work if you’re trying to be more efficient. Psychologist and author Guy Winch, Ph.D., argues that a more accurate term for multitasking would be “task switching,” because you’re going to and from one action to another instead of truly doing two things at once, which wastes energy on transitions and slows you down.
And once you’re slowed down, it can be hard to pick back up where you left off. We only spend an average of 75 seconds on a new task before the first interruption comes, according to this infographic, and it takes an average of 25 minutes to resume what we were doing in the first place. The wasted time adds up to an estimated $450 billion loss per year, globally.
More important than money, though, is the toll multitasking could take on your health and wellness. Loh notes in the study that media multitasking is also linked with poorer health, including depression, social anxiety and negative well-being.
If you want to finish a list of jobs, some better ways to enhance your efficiency and concentration would be to set goals, establish a routine, block distractions and take regular breaks.