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Multi-tasking Could Slow Down the Brain

by Gopalan on October 13, 2008 at 5:27 PM
 Multi-tasking Could Slow Down the Brain

Multi-tasking could make one feel proud of oneself. But there is a hidden danger. Ultimately it could lead to the slowing down of the brain.

Even though modern technology allows people to perform more tasks at the same time, juggling tasks can make our brains lose connections to important information. Which means, in the end, it takes longer because we have to remind our brains what we were working on. Youngsters these days swiftly move from one to another, computer to music to cricket to ...... Possibilities are endless. But therein lies the danger


David Meyer at the University of Michigan has spent the past few decades studying multitasking, mostly in adults.

"For tasks that are at all complicated, no matter how good you have become at multitasking, you're still going to suffer hits against your performance. You will be worse compared to if you were actually concentrating from start to finish on the task," Meyer says.

Multitasking causes a kind of brownout in the brain. Meyer says all the lights go dim because there just isn't enough power to go around.

So, the brain starts shutting things down, things like neural connections to important information.

The technical name for creating, or recreating, these neural pathways is "spreading activation." It involves building connections step by step. Meyer says it's similar to what we do when we free associate.

"I say to you, 'What do you think of when I say the word apple to you?' And you start vibing on apple. 'Oh, apple's a fruit, it fell on Newton's head. Newton was a physicist. He invented the first theory of gravity.' And on and on," Meyer says.

When we're interrupted, re-establishing those connections can take seconds or hours.

"It goes on subconsciously and eventually, if I'm lucky, I get back up to speed with what I was thinking about before," Meyer says.

So as one multi-tasks switching from one to another could become a tedious process over a period of time, in effect it makes one less efficient.

Besides something hovering in the background forces itself into your consciousness all the time, and you tend to get distracted. Such as when your computer announces: "You've got mail."

"Everybody does get distracted by it. But most people learn to get used to that distraction and when to say 'no, I've got to work, and I'm not going to give into this,' " a student points out.

Saying no to distractions depends, in part, on being able to control your impulses, something that's not fully developed in a teenager's brain.

And worse one could become addicted to multi-tasking, in the case of youngsters again.

There's not much research on the addictive nature of multitasking. But Meyer likens it to playing video games or skydiving: We all get a buzz from novelty and variety. Of course, when the stakes get higher, multitasking can stress you out.

"The brain areas that you would see light up and the bio-chemicals, the neurotransmitters that would be getting released would be quite different if I was an air traffic controller trying to land a whole bunch of planes at La Guardia Airport or wherever. I wouldn't be having pleasure then," Meyers told the NPR radio station.

Source: Medindia
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