You might be a compulsive multitasker, doing a million things and using a number of technologies at the same time — talking on your mobile phone while working on a presentation on your computer or listening to music while shooting off emails. Maybe you do this to be more productive. But recent research has revealed that multitasking with multiple technologies could actually change the structure of the brain and reduce the amount of gray matter.
The research, conducted by scientists from the University of Sussex, found that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower gray matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who just use one device occasionally. The study was published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
Multitasking can lead to serious mistakes due to poor attention in the face of distractions. Driving while talking on the phone and listening to the GPS or a medical intern tweeting while checking a patient are classic examples of how multitasking can lead to accidents. Previous studies have also shown a connection between switching through various technologies and the onset of depression and anxiety.
“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being. Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure," said researcher Kepkee Loh in a statement.
To check the exact going-ons in the brain of multitaskers, the neuroscientists took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or brain scans of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media. Their brain structures revealed that independent of their individual personality traits, people who used more number of devices had smaller gray matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is situated in the arc-shaped region called the limbic cortex and has been implicated in cognitive and emotional processing.
But the researchers are quick to point out that more studies need to be carried out to ascertain if multitasking leads to reduced gray matter or if people with smaller gray matter are more inclined to multitask.
"Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC. A longitudinal study is required to unambiguously determine the direction of causation," Loh said.
Previous studies have shown how stimulation of the brain by its physical and social surroundings can lead to neural enrichment or change in the structure of the brain. Brains in novel and richer environments have higher rates of synaptogenesis that is formation of synapses between neurons. Giving specific stimulus causes cortical re-mapping, which is how specific functions of a damaged brain region could be re-mapped to a remaining intact region.
Studies have also shown how specific training such as learning to juggle or learning a map increases the gray matter densities in the brain. So the next time you feel the urge to multitask, junk your technologies and try juggling five oranges instead.
Source: Loh K, Kanai R. High media multi-tasking is associated with smaller gray-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex. PLOS ONE. 2014.