Young people * Mental wellbeing

Multi-tasking confuses the brain

Multitasking not so efficient, it turns out Multi-taskers obsessed by irrelevancy, study says

Pay attention! Read this article, top to bottom, without humming to the music playing on the radio. Don't glance at your mobile. Resist the temptation to check your email.

If you manage to get to the bottom without losing focus, congratulations; you can concentrate on a task for more than a few seconds at a time, and this, it turns out, makes your brain more effective.

That, at least, is what researchers at Stanford University found when they looked at multi-tasking, and its effect on the brain.

The assumption was that people who multi-task have control over what they are thinking and what they pay attention to, and therefore that they are somehow gifted in being able to juggle many tasks and streams of information at the same time.

Alas, the researchers could not pinpoint what multi-taskers were better at.

"We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it," said Eyal Ophir, the study's lead author.

A series of memory experiments were conducted that involved 'heavy' multi-taskers filtering out irrelevant information, or organizing their memories. They did much less well than people who were 'light' multi-taskers.

The researchers assumed that heavy multi-taskers are really good at switching from one activity to the next, faster than other people. Alas, the multi-taskers failed again.

"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," Mr Ophir said. "The high multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

"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," said Professor Anthony Wagner, a co-author of the study. "That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

Researchers are now looking at whether 'chronic media multi-taskers' are born unable to concentrate, or whether their approach damages their cognitive control.

The study was published in the August 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This article was published on Fri 28 August 2009

Image © Christos Georghiou -

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