Study:Media multi-taskers could be diminishing their brain’s gray matter

BrainHow many of you multi-media task while performing your daily job, watching T.V., or even while eating dinner?

You might be thinking, “sounds pretty normal, I could box-check all of the above.” But before you check your Facebook page, your Twitter feed, text and scan your emails, STOP!- and take a break. You might want to hear about a 2014 research study in the journal PLOS ONE, suggesting that high media multi-tasking might be shrinking their grey matter.

Your brain on technology

Researchers at the University of Sussex, UK, found that people who use multi-media, defined as “simultaneously using mobile phones, laptops and other media devices”, have less grey matter in a part of their brain involved in emotion; however, the neural changes responsible have yet to be determined.

MRI brain scans performed by researchers Kep Kee Lo and Dr. Royta Kanai at the University of Sussex, UK, were compared with those people who multitask with multiple devices and people who occasionally use media devices.

The scans showed that those who used the highest number of media devices had lower amounts of grey matter than the occasional users in a region of their brain involved in cognitive function, impulse control, reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.

Logic dictates the brain is on overload. That may not only be hindering your productivity, but studies have also shown that heavy media multi-taskers have higher rates of depression and anxiety, difficulties with focusing on tasks and more reported stress than non-media multi-taskers.

Here is one of the major problems. People think that media multi- tasking gives them a leading-edge or increases their productivity. Research has shown quite the opposite. Not only is it counterproductive, it can be addicting; it’s like cotton candy for the brain.

RAS overload

Performing a focused task requires us to activate a part of our brain known as the RAS or reticular activating system , which plays a role in our consciousness, breathing, heartbeat, sex and behavioral motivation. The RAS importantly filters the bombardment of sensory stimuli, allowing us to focus on a single stimulus without sensory overload.

But herein lies the problem: The RAS thrives on novelty. And the problem with novelty in the multi-media world? It’s on “steroids.”

By the time 10 am happens, we are already on overload. We are looking at a computer with two screens with 37 open windows going on behind the scenes. And our smartphone? No less than five instant messages, six texts, ten twitter alerts and five unrelated work calls to add insult to injury throughout the day. And worse yet? Your RAS has to filter out Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, video games, YouTube, and Fox News.

The RAS is supposed to filter out what is important, but it really has no clue about priorities, only novelties. Why is that addicting? Because novelties are fun. They give us a “sugar” rush.

Every time the phone rings, you receive a text message or you get a Twitter alert, it could be something interesting or something “new.” What could it be? It causes your brain to release dopamine, which feels really great and thus, the addiction.

Fractured thinking

According to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the leading brain scientists, “technology is rewiring our brains.” Although technology has many benefits, too much digital technology is counterproductive and can have negative consequences in excess.

It struck a chord with Matt Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on the deadly consequences of distracted driving while multi-tasking . And the heavier the multi-tasking, the more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information. “Scientists have found fractured thinking and lack of focus remains after multi-tasking; in other words, this is your brain off computers”, Richter states.

Until further studies

Studying the neural pathways of the brain while media multitasking remains largely unexplored. Further longitudinal studies are needed to unambiguously determine a time line for cause and effect in regards to our grey matter. Until then? I’ve drawn a line in the sand. I’ve just limited the iPhone usage in my home with my teenage daughters.

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