You are on your laptop, perusing the news. Your iPhone prompts you to check out a new Facebook post. Then your iPad alerts you that you have a G-chat request, just as the television offers a late-breaking update on a developing story.
Are we beating up our brains with all of this multi-tasking?
Researchers may have found this to be true. Though the jury is still out, the summary of an interesting new study is stark in its import: “Simultaneously using mobile, laptops, and other media devices could be changing the structure of your brain.”
The study — “Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex” — concludes that people who frequently use multiple media devices simultaneously have lower grey-matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who use just one device occasionally.
Conducted at the University of Sussex in the UK, the research was funded by a grant from the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
“Media multitasking, or the concurrent consumption of multiple media forms, is increasingly prevalent in today’s society and has been associated with negative psychosocial and cognitive impacts,” according to study authors and neuroscientists Kep Kee Loh and Dr. Ryota Kanai. “Individuals who engage in heavier media-multitasking are found to perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties.”
The research, which monitored 75 test subjects, found that people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region most responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.
Of course, as every logician knows: correlation does not equal causation. The researchers aren’t sure yet whether excessive simultaneous media usage prompts changes in the brain structure, or whether people with less-dense grey matter are more driven to media multitasking.
It’s a chicken-and-egg question of increasing urgency in a world beset by multi-tasking mayhem.
“Our findings suggest a possible structural correlate for the observed decreased cognitive control performance and socio-emotional regulation in heavy media-multitaskers,” note the study authors. “While the cross-sectional nature of our study does not allow us to specify the direction of causality, our results brought to light novel associations between individual media multitasking behaviors and ACC structure differences.”
What the research does backup are earlier studies indicating connections between high media multitasking activity and poor attention and focus in the face of multiple distractions, along with potential emotional problems including depression and anxiety.
Loh is direct in his assessment, albeit preliminary.
“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being,” Loh said. “Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure.”
Journal source: Loh KK, Kanai R (2014) Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106698