By Megan Neider
"Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves," Albert Einstein reportedly once said.
Our brains are incredible machines, but there are tasks and experiences in life that require our undivided attention.
Research shows that multitasking is not as productive as many think, and splitting your attention between tasks leads to decreased performance results across all age groups.
It’s not shocking that multitasking has become a go-to coping mechanism given the way that new technologies have increased the demand for instant communication and gratification. “Expectations have changed in terms of the expectation that people are going to respond immediately if you reach out to them by text and email,” explains UCSF neurobiologist Dr. Adam Gazzaley.
Because of this, people are plugged into their digital devices nearly 24/7 and the amount of interference around us in our daily lives is increasing, he said. Whether confronted by continuous texts, tweets, or status updates, our brains may not be equipped to process all this information at once.
A 2009 study at Stanford University found that individuals who self-reported high levels of media multitasking had slower switching times between tasks.
Gazzaley, who studies how the brain deals with interruptions, makes this sound like basic common sense - but for many it is not. “If we are switching back and forth between Facebook and Twitter and email while trying to do something that involves a lot of concentration and thought to stay focused, we probably will not accomplish it at the same high level that we would’ve if we focused on just one thing,” he says.
The potential harm done by constant multitasking and exposure to media-based interruptions could be significant.
In a 2007 study reported in “Current Directions In Psychological Science”, psychology professors at the University of Utah showed participants a variety of items and later quizzed them on their ability to recall those items. When participants were talking on the phone while looking at the items, their ability to remember them was cut in half.
A wealth of research has found that performance drastically decreases when a person tries to focus on more than one task at a time, media-related or not, reported “The Scientific American Mind” in March 2012.
One study showed that moderate levels of multitasking were associated with higher levels of productivity. But as multitasking increased, accuracy levels significantly decreased, according to recent research by multitasking experts Rachel Adler and Raquel Benbunan-Fich. The question may then be whether you’d like to get the job done - or get the job done well.
Teenagers and young adults are often generalized as the most ardent multitaskers, not always without reason. Many teens use their phones in the classroom, at the movies, and even while walking down the street. A 2008 Harris Interactive poll about cell phone habits suggested almost half of the teens surveyed said they would "die" without their mobile phones. What uis often overlooked is that older adults also multitask, and their performance suffers the most from these distractions.
Studies have found that older adults consistently have the most trouble multitasking and switching between tasks.
Sander Daselaar, the senior research scientist at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, researches the effect that aging has on specific brain functions. Daselaar explained that older adults are more distracted by interruptions, which negatively affects their memory and ability to multitask. They focus too much on irrelevant information or the interferences themselves, which makes it difficult to remember relevant information and efficiently switch between tasks.
Researchers attribute this to cognitive aging, or the natural deterioration of certain brain functions as a person ages, says Joaquin Anguera. Anguera is a postdoctoral fellow who studies cognitive aging under Gazzaley at UCSF. While some decline is inevitable, researchers say, they are identifying strategies that can lead to better cognitive functioning in older adults.
“Everyone generally is going to decline, but you might just be able to prevent or delay that a little bit,” said Ian McDonough, a research associate at the UT-Dallas Center for Vital Longevity. McDonough explained that there are three factors that can improve the overall brain function - and perhaps multitasking - of older adults: exercise, mental challenges, and social cohesion.
Exercise has been linked to a variety of health benefits, including brain function.
In 2011, the journal “Ageing Research Reviews” reported that “regular exercise and an active lifestyle during adulthood have been associated with reduced risk and protective effects for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer''s disease.” Biologically, this is because exercise increases oxygen supply to the brain, which increases oxygen intake in neurons and resistance to stress. McDonough stated that regular exercise for older adults could just mean walking for 20-30 minutes a few times a week. Regular exercise earlier in life can produce these same health benefits later on, so he encouraged exercise at any age.
Second, keeping yourself mentally engaged and challenged is critical for retaining brain function.
An article in the 2011 “Ageing Research Reviews” explained that mental stimulation is important because “the brain's ability to reorganize neural pathways with new information or experiences means it's regularly changing; we can even generate new brain cells. But you need to work it.” As soon as you master an activity, McDonough elaborated, it stops challenging you and it will no longer provide the same mental benefits. On the other hand, simply changing the hand that you brush your teeth with can work your brain in a new way. “Change your route up, get a little disoriented, face new challenges, keep your mind flexible,” McDonough advised.
Last, social cohesion has been linked to successful cognitive aging.
“The idea is that people that isolate themselves are lonely, don’t feel connected to other people - they don’t get as much stimulation in life,” McDonough said. Connection and interacting with others provides mental stimulation, along with social support.
In another example of this idea, “Ageing Research Reviews” reported that among people who had the same tangles in their brains as people with Alzheimer’s disease, those who were connected to social networks had less cognitive decline.
In other words, both groups had the biological hallmark for Alzheimer’s disease, but social cohesion was protective. It’s not about the number of people you’re in contact with, McDonough explained, but how connected you feel. “Even if you have 500 friends on Facebook or you just have a lot of connections, if that still isn’t enough for you and you feel lonely, that will not really help. But if you have 2 or 3 really good friends, you feel perfectly satisfied with your social activities and everything, then that is just as good to help your cognitive functioning.”
Older adults face additional challenges when it comes to multitasking because of the way the brain declines over time, but in reality, multitasking is a self-destructive habit that only appears to be efficient, regardless of your age.
As evangelical missionary Jim Elliot once put it, “Wherever you are, be all there.”
Megan Neider is a student at Santa Clara University. She produced this piece as part of a journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch on science in Silicon Valley.