The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking

Brain

Stop multitasking!

That's what those who study multitasking would urge. Research shows that attempting to focus on multiple things at once reduces efficiency and productivity. You're not really multitasking, they emphasize, but just quickly switching from one task to another, and there are costs to this mental juggling in terms of the ability to concentrate and do an effective job of each task.

Furthermore, studies suggest that some of the people who view themselves as expert multitaskers are actually the least good at it. It seems that many people don't multitask because they're adept at it, but rather because they're easily distracted and can't seem to keep themselves from jumping from one task to another.

You've probably heard or read about these arguments against multitasking. But if you're like most people (me, for example), you continue to multitask anyway. Work life often seems to require you—or force you—to focus on several things at a time. And both in and outside work, digital distractions ensure that your attention is pulled in several directions at a time.

Still, some of the latest findings are interesting because they primarily studied the impact of multitasking on the brain, particularly when that multitasking revolves around the constant sending and retrieval of electronic information. Researchers have found that compared with “single-taskers,” people who are regularly bombarded with electronic information have difficulty paying attention and recalling information.

But this concerns much more than the matter of decreased productivity. According to these researchers, participants who multitasked during cognitive exercises actually experienced a decreased IQ of as much as 15 points. They also found that "high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control." Chronic multitaskers may also experience brain changes that are linked to depression, anxiety, and poor impulse control.

If that's not enough to make you question your multitasking habits, get this. There's even a possibility that multitasking can contribute to the brain’s premature aging. This has to do with the stress caused by constantly multitasking and the impact of that stress on your chromosomes.

It wouldn’t hurt to strive to do a bit more single-tasking and to remove distractions that compel you to multitask.

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