Multitasking – Bad for the Brain?

The question is not whether we multitask (we all do), but how much do we do and what effect does it have on us? Is switching quickly from email to homework problem to text message to Facebook to YouTube to homework problem just another way of being efficient, or does it have more dire consequences?

The first-ever study of chronic multitaskers was published back in 2009. A team at Stanford gathered 41 subjects. HEAVIES were identified as heavy multitaskers based on the large amount of multitasking they reported doing each day. The other 22 subjects were identified as LIGHTS or light multitaskers because they spent significantly less time each day multitasking.

Once the subjects had been ranked in this way, their ability to process information was tested. But before I give you the results, let me give you a chance to guess the outcomes.

  1. Which group, HEAVIES or LIGHTS, would you expect to be better at filtering out relevant information from a background of information?
  2. Which group, HEAVIES or LIGHTS, would you expect to be better at filtering relevant information in their memories?
  3. Which group, HEAVIES or LIGHTS, would you expect to be better at switching rapidly from one cognitive task to another?
  4. Which group, HEAVIES or LIGHTS, believes it is better at multitasking?

Vote, then check out the results.
It turned out that the LIGHTS beat the HEAVIES on items 1, 2, and 3. LIGHTS were better at filtering information, whether from background distractions or from one’s own set of memories, and LIGHTS could switch from one cognitive task to another more rapidly. The only area where HEAVIES excelled was in self-confidence. They truly believed that they were better multitaskers than the LIGHTS even though the tests showed they weren’t.

So does multitasking degrade mental performance? Does multitasking degrade one’s ability to multitask?

It’s hard to say. While it’s possible that the HEAVIES performed poorly because of their history of heavy multitasking, it is also possible that they were weak performers before they learned to multitask, i.e., being weak in these areas somehow promoted multitasking behavior.

To learn more, see the short blurb in Science (28 August 2009, Volume 325, Random Samples, p. 1053) or read the original research article, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers” by E. Ophir et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009 (DOI

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