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Media multitaskers are in danger of brain overload

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  • Media multitaskers are in danger of brain overload

    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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  • #2
    Re: Media multitaskers are in danger of brain overload

    Multitaskers bad at multitasking

    Monday, 24 August 2009

    The people who engage in media "multitasking" are those least able to do so well, according to researchers.

    A survey defined two groups: those who routinely consumed multiple media such as internet, television and mobile phones, and those who did not.

    In a series of three classic psychology tests for attention and memory, the "low multitaskers" consistently outdid their highly multitasking counterparts.

    The results are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "Increasingly, people who are looking at their computer screen are frequently watching TV, listening to the radio, maybe reading print media, chatting, texting," said Cliff Nass, a co-author on the study from Stanford University.

    "On the computer you could be emailing while you have three chats going on while you're playing World of Warcraft. If you look at classical psychology textbooks, people cannot multitask - but if you walk around on the street, you see lots of people multitasking," he told BBC News.

    "So we asked ourselves the question, 'what is it that these multitaskers are good at that enable them to do this?'"

    Paying attention

    The three experiments undertaken by high and low multitaskers were designed to test three aspects that the study's authors believed must contribute to multitaskers' skills.

    In the first, they were tested for their ability to ignore irrelevant information. They were briefly shown a screen with two red rectangles and either 0, 2, 4 or 6 blue rectangles.

    The task was to determine whether, when the screen was shown again, one of the red rectangles had been rotated.

    Low multitaskers were better at the task, regardless of the number of blue rectangles, whereas high multitaskers got worse at it as the number of distracting blue rectangles went up.

    In a test of the degree of organisation of working memory, participants were presented with a series of letters, one at a time, and told to push a button when they saw a letter that they had seen exactly three letters previously.

    Again, low multitaskers were significantly better at correctly spotting the repeated letters. Not only did the high multitaskers do worse from the beginning, they got worse at it as time went on.

    Thirdly came a test of the participants' ability to switch tasks. They were first shown either "letter" or "number" on a screen, and then presented with a letter/number pair such as A7.

    If the preceding screen said "letter", they were to determine if it was a consonant or a vowel. If it said "number", they were to determine if it was even or odd.

    After, for example, a series of "number" tasks, the experimenters switched to "letter" tasks. Again, low multitaskers significantly outperformed their counterparts in switching to the new task.

    "The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking," Professor Nass said.

    "The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they're much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they're gifted at it."

    The pressing question that remains, Professor Nass said, is one of cause and effect: are those people with a dearth of multitasking skills drawn to multitasking lifestyles, or do the lifestyles dull the skills?

    The team is actively pursuing new research avenues, such as studying the brain activity of the different groups as they go about their multitasking.

    The results could be profound, Professor Nass said, potentially suggesting new means of teaching and even reporting news for those given to a multi-media feed of information.

    But at the very least, he said, multitaskers should be told that they are bad at multitasking.
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