Tweet while watching TV? Your brain is probably smaller (your heart, too!)

Click to read the study
Click to read the study

Here’s another strong hint that technology is making us dumber, and more critically, less sympathetic people.

British scientists published a study last month showing that second screeners — people who watch TV while playing with their cell phones, for example — have smaller brains in places where it matters: a region that controls emotional responses.

The research was published in PLOS ONE Journal.

Scientists at University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness hooked folks up to fMRI machines after learning about their media consumption habits, and found that multitaskers had smaller anterior cingulate cortexes. Known as the ACC, the brain region is connected to all sorts of important tasks, such as spotting hard-to-find mistakes, self-awareness, and most critically, emotional connection.

The study offers no insight on whether this is a correlation or a causation. In other words, the scientists don’t know if people who like to multitask tend to be more distractable and less kind; or if gadgets are making them that way. But the association found in the (admittedly small) study was strong, the researcher said.

Here’s a list of the awful things associated with someone who’s eyes dart from screen to screen to screen, based on their research and others.

  • *Individuals who engaged in more media multitasking activity had smaller gray matter volumes in the ACC. This could also possibly explain the poorer cognitive control performance and negative socio-emotional outcomes associated with increased media-multitasking
  • *Heavy multitaskers were less able to volitionally restrain their attention only to task relevant information.
  • *Heavier multitaskers were worse at inhibiting task-irrelevant stimuli
  • *Heavy multitaskers performed worse on the Operation Span Task, which was highly similar to a dual-task paradigm since participants were required to concurrently solve math problems and memorize presented letters.Heavy multitaskers also reported more failures of attention in everyday life
  • *It is plausible that heavier media multitaskers, with reduced ACC volumes, might be less disposed in emotional and motivational regulation.
  • *(Multitaskers) are found to correlate with increased neuroticism, sensation-seeking and impulsivity and negative socio-emotional outcomes.
  • *The pattern of brain structural differences obtained in the present study was similar to the neural correlates of Internet addiction (IA). Individuals with IA, defined simply as pathological overuse of the Internet or computers, were found to have decreased gray and white matter densities in the ACC

H/T to old friend Melissa Dahl, who reported on the study when it was released last month for NY Mag’s The Science of Us. 

Click to learn more about The Restless Project
Click to learn more about The Restless Project

I’ve written a lot about multitasking in the past. It was a focus of The Plateau Effect, which I wrote with Hugh Thompson.  Multitasking is usually a lie; it’s really rapid task-switching. And because there are switching costs, both things you are doing suffer. You talk to someone while reading your phone, you will either miss what’s being said or not digest what you are reading.  That’s just how the brain works.  Meanwhile, at the end of a day of rapid task switching, your brain has trouble relaxing.  In other words, you are restless.  We’ll  continue to discuss the virus that is multitasking as part of The Restless Project.

Certainly, there are ways to use multiple media devices so our lives, our experiences, and even our relationships are enhanced.  My brother and I are rabid baseball fans, but we are also thousands of miles apart.  I love texting him during games.  But we need to figure out how to regulate all these tasks, how to toggle between them appropriately, and how to do so without making the main task we are supposed to be doing — which is often, caring for someone we are with — suffer.  That’s going to be one of humanity’s biggest tasks in the early part of the 21st Century.

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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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