Is multi-tasking ruining our brains?

By Eric Wicklund
08:39 AM

If you can read this entire story without breaking away to answer your phone, check your e-mail, blog, tweet, refill your coffee cup or update your fantasy football roster, you’re lucky.

And you’re fast becoming part of the minority, an anachronistic throwback to simpler times.

Chances are, you’re a multi-tasker. Most people are. And with the latest in smartphones and tablets at your disposal, it’s never been easier to do so many things at once.

Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, PhD, who oversees the university’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, says mankind has been multi-tasking since the Industrial Revolution, so it’s nothing new. But as new technology steals time from previous technologies and every new invention supports multi-tasking, he says, the condition has become chronic.

The result? People are no longer conditioned to pay attention. Their brains are changing, Nass says, and that’s not a good thing.

(As an example, he points out that even listening to music at work can be detrimental. Music with lyrics, he points out, impedes cognitive thinking. So stick to classics, or Muzak ….)

Nass, who has co-authored one of the more definitive articles on chronic multi-tasking and wrote “The Man Who Lied to his Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” in 2010, stole the show at the recent 8th Annual Connected Health Symposium in Boston, sponsored by Partners HealthCare’s Center for Connected Health. His keynote speech had an audience of hundreds laughing constantly, perhaps nervously – even as many in that audience were dividing their time between the talk and their laptops, tablets or smartphones.

Nass believes multi-tasking is evolutionary and inevitable, a product of a fast-paced society. Yet he also feels it has reached its tipping point, in that “we ran out of time to steal from non-media activities.”

“Did people say, ‘That’s it – we’re not going to develop any new applications?’” he asked. “So every time an ‘Angry Birds comes along, there goes the Book of the Month Club’?”

Instead, Nass said, our brains changed.

“We are now unable to ignore the irrelevant,” he said.

Multi-taskers, Nass said, look at information differently, identifying potential rewards that overshadow the penalties. They’re thus less likely to complete tasks, moving on to other projects or sources of information when they get bored. They’re bad at top-down thinking, he said, and task-switching – which, consequently, makes them bad multi-taskers.

Can chronic multi-tasking be cured? Not as long as today’s gadgets, devices and toys are geared to accommodate this habit, Nass says. Instead, he suggests, “make depth seem like breadth” – use asides for key information (“it’s catnip for multi-taskers”), scatter information across windows and use product placement for multiple hits.

How this affects the healthcare setting remains to be seen. The industry is moving quickly to adopt mobile technology, and one would be hard-pressed to find a doctor who isn’t reliant on a smartphone and/or tablet. There have also been a number of studies targeting “device fatigue” and “app fatigue.”

And yet, can you tell a doctor to lay off the multi-tasking for a while? It’s one thing to check e-mail, chat with a friend, tweet and update your Facebook page at the same time. It’s another to do all of those tasks while offering a diagnosis to a patient.


Eric Wicklund blogs regularly at MobileHealthWatch.