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Media multitasking not only reduces performance but also IQ

October 5, 2016

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Attention all you multitaskers that pride yourself on your ability to read emails, respond to instant messages and answer the phone all while simultaneously doing your daily work.  Studies have recently shown that not only is this way of working unproductive, it drops your IQ, and there is ongoing research to determine whether it is causing permanent brain damage.

In this digital age, we are being constantly bombarded by a stream of emails, images, tweets, posts and instant messages sent through what seems to be a countless array of communication avenues.  Many individuals pride themselves on their ability to juggle this barrage of information.  As organizations are trying to do more with less, they often create incentives and rewards for multitasking.

According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains are “not wired to multitask well….when people think they are multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly.  And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

When we complete all these small actions, such as respond to email, tweet, or check a text, it creates a sense of accomplishment even though little to no critical thinking has taken place and in reality, not much is getting done.  Every time a task is completed, our brains release a little dose of dopamine which is a reward hormone generating feelings of happiness and contentment.  This creates a vicious cycle in the brain that encourages more and more multitasking in order to get the thrill and instant gratification from the dopamine release that the electronic media generates.

A group of Stanford researchers, Professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set out to determine if some individuals have the gift of multitasking, and if they do, what sets them apart from others.  The theory was that multitaskers have exceptional ability to store and organize information and excel at switching from one thing to another faster and better.  They can control what they think about and pay attention to and have a better memory when it comes to filtering information.

100 students were put through a series of three tests.  For each of these three tests they were split into two groups, one that regularly did a lot of media multitasking and those that didn’t.  According to Ophir, the study’s lead researcher, they kept looking for what multitaskers were better at, and in the end they didn’t find it.  These tests revealed that people who regularly multitask using several streams of electronic media do not pay attention or control their memory, and they are actually slower switching from one task to another compared to those who would rather complete one task at a time.  According to Nass “they’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

The Stanford researchers concluded that the minds of the multitaskers were not working as well as they could.  According to Wagner “when they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.  That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

A separate study at the University of London showed that individuals that multitasked while simultaneously performing other cognitive tasks experience significant IQ drops similar to those who smoke marijuana or skip a night of sleep.  Multitasking was shown to be even worse for men, whose IQ can drop as much 15 points,  equivalent to the range of an eight year old.  Multitasking also has been found to increase cortisol which is a stress hormone.  Constant interruptions brings on higher levels of stress, leads to overload, slows the brain and leaves you feeling wiped out.

One final study from the University of Sussex in the UK revealed that the cognitive damage associated with multi-tasking could be permanent.  MRIs of individuals who multitasked more often with multiple devices, such as texting while watching tv, had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex.  This is the area of the brain that is responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.  What isn’t clear from these studies is whether individuals with cognitive damage had a tendency to multi-task or whether multitasking causes the brain damage.

One thing is clear from all these studies, multi-tasking reduces efficiency and performance because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  While eliminating electronic media distractions at work is never going to be realistic, organizations should encourage a culture that allows employees to set aside periods of interrupted time in order to focus on tasks that require complex thinking, creativity and judgment.

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