How Media Multitasking Impacts Our Attention And Memory

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Even though multitasking feels normal, human brains were not designed for it. A new study from researchers at Stanford University finds links between poor memory, attention lapses, and media multitasking.

To understand what this all means, we talked with Fadi Tayim, PhD, clinical neuropsychologist and division chief of the Brain Mapping Center at the Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

“Our brains are much better at critically thinking through logical steps in a serial order,” Tayim says. “One thing at a time, piece by piece.”

If you’re writing on your computer, answering text messages on your phone, and watching TV, your brain begins parallel processing.

“Instead of thinking critically about one thing and all the parts about that one thing, you think about many things and all the parts of those many things all at once,” Dr. Tayim says.

What Happens When Your Brain Tries To Multitask

When you ask your brain to quickly switch back and forth between tasks, you likely notice that you need time to re-focus on the tasks at hand. The human brain craves an organized strategy and structure as it focuses on the steps for a specific task.

“It’s similar to when you work on a computer and you open too many programs at the same time that require a lot of memory,” Dr. Tayim says. “The computer fan kicks on because it’s being overloaded and can’t process any one application efficiently.”

When we are distracted, it becomes harder for our brain to process information as memory. To accurately remember something, we must first fully focus on it, says Dr. Tayim.

“We live in an ever-changing landscape where we are bombarded with visuals and highly organized design created to peel away our attention,” says Dr. Tayim. “It’s hard for anyone to sit down and recall something.”

New Insights Into Better Memory Making

The Stanford researchers measured brain activity and pupil size using electroencephalogram studies (EEG) to track lapses in attention related to memory. They looked at how well study volunteers could: 

  • Engage with multiple media sources, like texting and watching television, within a given hour
  • Identify a gradual change in an image

The results? Study participants with heavier media multitasking and shorter lengths of focused attention performed worse on memory tasks.

“The Stanford study findings are consistent with what we know,” Dr. Tayim says. “How we store, code, process, and retrieve information later.”

The research shows a correlation, not causation. The information provides ways we can prepare our brains to remember certain information and opens the door to studying exercises that could help people stay engaged in an activity or task.

Doctors already use eye tracking software with some MRI exams, to make sure a patient sees what’s being shown to them. In the future, scientists could develop a wearable device, like glasses, that track pupil size and then send a gentle vibration to help you refocus your attention.

“It’s also important to create pre-planned breaks, like when a fitness tracker reminds you to move every hour,” Dr. Tayim says. “If you’re reading, for example, you might get a reminder to take a break for two, three, or five minutes. This prevents the loss of attention.”

Set Up Your Brain For Success

Whether you work at home or the workplace, your day can be filled with distractions. That ping for an email or those notifications from social media are designed to grab our attention and keep us there. But that is not productive. You can make changes now to help your brain stay focused and function at its peak. Dr. Tayim recommends: 

  • Create an environment where you can focus on one thing at a time. This may be easier or more difficult as many of us are working from home. If you’re working at home, you have more control over your space and interruptions.
  • Compartmentalize obligations to certain times of day. Check email for one hour in the morning and again in the afternoon. Turn off social media notifications when you are focused on work tasks.
  • Continuously focus on tasks. Keep a list of your goals for the day, the week, the month. Are you completing tasks within your set time frame?
  • Embrace minimalism. Keep a bland office. Remove as many distractions as possible.
  • Limit screen time when not working. Create a plan to disengage from TV, your computer, your mobile phone, and social media. Focus on time with friends and family. Talking with loved ones via virtual calls does not count as screen time.

Our brains spend the most time and energy on memory. That’s why we easily notice when memory changes occur.

If you or a family member has concerns about memory, ask your doctor if a referral to the Premier Health Cognitive Clinic might be appropriate.

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