Since the dawn of the information age, multitasking has been viewed as a necessity. However, a wave of studies certainly disagree.
If you’ve ever noticed that those who brag about being multitaskers also happen to be the most difficult to work with as they momentarily tune out of chats or otherwise drift away for moments, you might be onto something. Research in the past has found that multitasking means nothing more than paying insufficient attention to, and doing a lousy job with, multiple things at once.
New research from Stanford published in the journal Nature suggests that multitasking may even be worse than previously thought—it thwarts the ability of young people to remember what they’ve seen and done, especially when flipping from screen to screen.
The Stanford study focuses on the effect “media multitasking” on memory, defined as moving continually between screen-based activities. For example, one may be texting, then switch to checking Instagram, then over to TikTok to watch a video. The research suggests that such experiences may not stick in memory, and this spills over into other areas of our lives.
In the information age, we devour more information than any of our predecessors ever did. Despite this, we aren’t always as articulate as we would like to be with the information we harbour. It is entirely possible that our addiction to media multitasking is the culprit for this phenomenon.
“As we navigate our lives, we have these periods in which we’re frustrated because we’re not able to bring knowledge to mind, expressing what we know,” the study’s senior investigator Anthony Wagner tells Stanford News. “Fortunately,” he adds, “science now has tools that allow us to explain why an individual, from moment to moment, might fail to remember something stored in their memory.”
The researchers recruited 80 subjects, ages 18 to 26. As these individuals participated in experimental exercises, researchers kept track of their lapses in attention by monitoring their posterior alpha power brain wave activity as well as changes to the sizes of their pupils.
As the lead author explains, “Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth. We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter—in particular before you do different tasks—are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”
Lead author Kevin Madore explains, “Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth. We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter—in particular before you do different tasks—are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”
Participants viewed a set of object images onscreen. As they were doing so, they were tasked with classifying each image according to pleasantness or size. A 10-minute break followed, after which they were presented with another set of images. They were then asked if each image was new or if it had appeared in the initial session. This allowed the researchers to assess each individual’s memory.
The subjects also filled out questionnaires pertaining to their media multitasking habits and asking them to state the degree to which they could successfully engage with multiple activities simultaneously. Combining all this information together, the researchers found that people less able to sustain attention and those who reported being heavy media multitaskers performed more poorly at memory tasks.
“We can’t say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures, though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions,” says Madore.
While the study explores the memories of young people exclusively, its insights could apple universally.
“We have an opportunity now,” Wagner concludes, “to explore and understand how interactions between the brain’s networks that support attention, the use of goals and memory relate to individual differences in memory in older adults both independent of, and in relation to, Alzheimer’s disease.”