Monday, October 13, 2014

Blame it on the Brain Books

This morning I headed to the library to return a couple books on technology and the brain, and pick up four more that I’d had out sent from the Central Library.  I really couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about as I meandered up the walkway, but it clearly wasn’t those books, because I realized right after I dropped them into the slot that it wasn’t actually the slot, but the opening in a trash can by the front door. Mind you this was no ordinary trash can but a concrete and steel contraption requiring some kind of tool to open, which meant I had to go inside and sheepishly trouble a very kind maintenance man to help me retrieve them. 

Blame it on the brain books. In truth, my mental lapse may well have stemmed from digiphrenia, a term coined by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff to describe the kind of disordered mental activity that most of us experience daily as a result of living in a digital universe. 

We used to call these ‘senior moments’ but scientists now tell us that these have almost nothing to do with age, but instead, everything to do with how our brains process information in a world where media multitasking has become the holy grail of a virtual existence.

I was talking to a twelve-year-old yesterday who described her afternoon ritual of heading to her room after school and watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix while doing her homework, assuring me, “I actually get some done!”

How about you?  Are you a multitasker?  Do you check emails while talking on the phone?  Do paperwork while watching television? Read or answer texts while nursing your baby? Talk to your spouse while listening to the football game on the TV or radio? If so, you’re in good company, because 95% of the population says they engage in media multitasking.  In fact there is a phone app that lets you use your camera to see where you are going so you can email while walking!  Don’t worry—I’m not planning on downloading that one. 

There is some really intriguing research on multitasking, but before I share it—test your own knowledge with the quiz below.  Simply determine whether the statements are true or false and then read what science has discovered (for you multitaskers who need to move on quickly—the answers are also found at the end of the blog!). 

Here’s what we know:
Having more ways to exert our mental energy increases our ability to focus. False.  Research shows that because our brains can only pay so much attention, the more demands for mental energy, the less focused we will be.
Our brains are quite capable of carrying out more than one process at a time.  False.   We don’t actually ever carry out two cognitive processes at the same time—we actually just switch between them, and the delay between the two tasks means we perform poorer on both.

There is such a thing as a multitasking “high” that makes us want to take in even more stimuli.  True.  It seems that engaging in multiple activities releases neurochemicals into our system, making us feel that we are especially productive and creating an addiction to media multitasking. 

Multitasking may lead to inefficiency in the long run. True.  While we may feel more productive by multitasking, the truth is that the brain works less efficiently when it is interrupted during one task to complete another.  Studies on the American workforce suggest that not only do employees change tasks every 12 minutes, but during that time they are interrupted at least three times, creating an estimate of $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

Multitasking improves our memory.  False.  In fact, when we divide our attention through multitasking the part of the brain that is used for learning is put on a shelf, and in the end, this negatively affects our long-term memory and retention.

Digital natives (those who have grown up on video games, smart phones and e-readers) are better able to focus on several things at once than others. False.  A well-document Stanford study has actually shown that heavy media multitaskers are less able to make mental shifts between tasks and seem to be the worst at it.

Based on brain imaging, the amount of brain activity when someone is doing two things at once is greater than when they are only doing one thing. False.   Brain imaging studies show the brain firing less when someone tries to do two things at once than a single task.   The depletion of brain activity during simultaneous tasks is accompanied by decreases in short-term learning and task accuracy.

When it comes to the brain, there is no such thing as multitasking. True.   You’ve probably figured out by now that mental multitasking is a myth—we never really do two things at once if they depend on cognition, but instead jump from one to the other, which in the end, is harmful to our mental growth and well-being.

The thing about media multitasking is that, as I noted in last week’s post, it actually restructures our brain, and as a result, we just keep on doing it, even though we sense that it isn’t really good for us.  But, as I said, we can do something about it—we can rewire our brains through some diligence and discipline.  And nowhere is this more important than in our relationship with God.  This is perhaps the perfect place to start some new habits that will begin to move us in the right direction.  I offer a few here on a printable to put on your refrigerator or computer screen, and in the coming weeks will continue to share more. 

My suggestion is to choose one thing and stick with it for at least three weeks before trying to add something new—it will take this long for your brain to rewire itself!  You can also adjust any of these to make them family exercises.


  1. Finally! Multi-tasking activities I have suspected for years is proven a myth.

  2. At least it was not digiphobia, as when you hear a digital noise, and you panic because you don't know which device is commanding your attention!