The study published in PLOS ONE showed that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower gray matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions. Since multi-tasking is a common element of studying in medical assistant schools and practical nursing programs, the research may give rise to new trends that advise focusing on a single task.
“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being,” neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh said in a news release. “Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure.”
Reduced gray matter
For the study, Kee Loh and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain structures of 75 adults. The participants had all answered a questionnaire about their consumption of media devices, including mobile phones, computers, TV and print media.
The results indicated that, independent of individual personality traits, those who simultaneously used a higher number of media devices had lower amounts of gray matter in the ACC.1 However, Kee Loh and Dr. Ryota Kanai made a disclaimer that their study reveals a link rather than causality, and additional research is necessary to further explain the potential changes in brain structure triggered by media multitasking.
Bolstering previous findings
Still, the study builds upon previous research that has shown a connection between high media multitasking activity and poor attention in the face of distractions, as well as emotional problems such as anxiety and even depression.2 A Stanford study indicated that people bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not control their memory, pay attention or switch from one job to another as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. In a handful of cognitive trials, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.2
Essentially, when an individual tries to complete multiple tasks at once, he or she may become worse at each one of those tasks.
Prolonged exposure to novel environments and experiences can indeed alter brain structure. Neural pathways and synapses can change based on our behaviors and emotions – and this shift can occur at the cellular level. It may also pertain to cortical re-mapping, which is how specific functions of a damaged brain region be relocated to a remaining intact region.
In the medical community, multitasking is very prevalent aspect of certain professions. Those graduating medical assisting schools might try to hone in on a single task when possible, instead of juggling several at once. Even in the library, it’s common to see students studying for medical assisting degrees operating more than one technology device – such as going back and forth between a computer and cell phone.
Understanding the brain’s rewiring
While balancing several media devices at once is likely not beneficial for the ACC region of the brain, scientists have yet to explain the reasons behind this.
“The exact mechanisms of these changes are still unclear,” Kep Kee Loh said in a press release.1 “Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC. A longitudinal study is required to unambiguously determine the direction of causation.”
1Bealing, J. (2014, September 25). Brain scans reveal ‘grey matter’ differences in media multitaskers. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/?id=26540
2Gorlick, A. (2009, August 24). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html