The Effects of Media Multitasking on Your Brain
In a world where we are constantly interacting with our smartphones in addition to our usual surroundings, it’s scary to think how our brains may be coping with the overactivity, but Anthony Wagner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory, was intrigued. Wagner analyzed a decade’s worth of data on the effects of media multitasking and attention. He shared some of his findings and takeaways in an interview with the Stanford Report.
Media multitasking is defined as having many media channels or platforms open at once. For the purposes of this review, Wagner analyzed differences between heavy and light media multitaskers. Heavy multitasking may be writing a paper, while simultaneously switching over to watch a basketball game, texting and cruising Facebook. Light media multitasking would be just focusing on the paper for a set time frame like an hour and then checking your phone for a couple of minutes.
Wagner said there isn’t one single study that shows a positive correlation between media multitasking and memory, but there are numerous ones that are negative.
“In the review, we noticed an interesting potential emerging story. One possibility is that reduced working memory occurs in heavy media multitaskers because they have a higher probability of experiencing lapses of attention. When demands are low, they underperform. But, when the task demands are high, such as when the working memory tasks are harder, there’s no difference between the heavy and light media multitaskers,” says Wagner.
Wagner’s review shows a strong negative relationship between media multitasking and cognitive memory performance. However, Wagner said that it’s too early to make a claim that the data clearly shows multitasking causes a change in attention and memory.
“One could choose to be cautious, however. Many of us have felt like our technology and media are controlling us—that email chime or text tone demands our attention. But we can control that by adopting approaches that minimize habitual multitasking; we can decide to be more thoughtful and reflective users of media,” Wagner says.
It’s important to remember to be present in what you’re doing, especially when you realize constantly switching between tasks or media can hinder cognitive performance. Try setting your phone to the side for an hour or two while you focus in on one task and see if it makes a difference in your or a client’s life.