In theory, technology should make humans into our most productive selves. But a recent paper shows that people who multitask on different devices could be prone to the very opposite.
After looking at the brain scans of people who do things like tweet, read email, text, and watch TV all at once, neuroscientists Kep Lee Loh and Ryota Kanai found strange deficits in a part of their brains dealing with “cognitive and emotional control.” Out of the 75 University College London subjects scanned, the pattern scaled with the degree of media multitasking: The higher the subject rated on a multitasking scale, the more likely they were to have less gray matter in something called the anterior cingular cortex (ACC). In addition to phones and laptops, the researchers considered print newspapers or magazines “media devices,” too.
The study authors say that their paper, published in PLOS ONE, could back up prior research linking media device multitasking to depression and social anxiety; shrunken ACC’s have also shown up in people suffering from PTSD, OCD, depression, and addiction. But people who media multitask also tend to have certain personality traits. They’re more neurotic and extroverted, which can also link up to different brain structures. Still, even when Loh and Kanai controlled for personality, the differences in the ACC remained.
With the imminent rise in head-up display devices like Google Glass, media multitasking will likely only become more prevalent. “But the crucial question is whether we will adapt to this new environment with a constant flow of information,” Kanai says. “It’s an open question, and is an important one because it is relevant when we think about how we should educate children.”
In that sense, Kanai and Loh are left with a bit of a mystery on their hands. Some studies show that multitaskers fare worse on cognitive tasks, possibly stemming from this brain deficiency. Another study found that multitaskers fared better on other cognitive tests. Meanwhile, Kanai and Loh don’t know whether multitasking caused the shrinkage in the brain, or whether people who multitask were drawn to multitasking because of existing differences.
The only way they can find out is to test what happens to people who are exposed to new technologies. For this reason, the researchers have launched a study to look at the brains of people in Kolkata, India, who are given laptops for the first time. Soon, they hope to answer this question: Are we socially anxious and depressed because we’re multitasking? Or are we multitasking because we’re hardwired to be socially anxious and depressed?