How Does Multitasking Effect Long-term Cognitive Health?
Experts have debated whether multitasking effects long-term cognitive health in a positive or negative way for decades.
Despite warnings by some authorities to avoid multitasking, we live in a computer world moving faster than we can keep up, which forces us to multitask whether or not we want to.
Perhaps nothing created more continuous multitasking than smartphones. Many humans self-programed to never focus 100% on anything. While always half-focused on several things, the modern human over-attached to their smart devices appears never focused on anything.
But, are we paying a price? Does the multitasking epidemic contribute to premature cognitive decline?
Let’s turn to a new study from two of the more credible medical research institutions.
Stanford University Medical School Study
A new Stanford University Medical School study investigates multitasking’s effect on cognitive health.
Stanford University Memory Laboratory Director Anthony Wagner, coauthored the paper with University of California, San Francisco neurologist Melina Uncapher on multitasking’s long-term cognitive effect.
As the Stanford Memory Laboratory director, Wagner has been investigating multitasking’s influence on attention and other cognitive influences for the past 11 years. His devotion, along with Uncapher’s assistance, led to them publishing their conclusions in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Stanford and USCF collaboration concluded: “
the balance of evidence suggests that heavier media multitaskers exhibit poorer performance in a number of cognitive domains, relative to lighter media multitaskers.
When asked to define media multitasking, Wager said, “Well, we don’t multitask. We task switch. The word ‘multitasking’ implies that you can do two or more things at once, but in reality our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth.”
“Heavy media multitaskers have many media channels open at once and they switch between them,” said Wagner. “A heavy media multitasker might be writing an academic paper on their laptop, occasionally checking the Stanford basketball game on TV, responding to texts and Facebook messages, then getting back to writing – but then an email pops up and they check it.”
As compared to lighter multi-switchers?
“A light media multitasker would only be writing the academic paper or may only switch between a couple of media,” explained Wagner. “They may turn off Wi-Fi, put away their phone or change their settings so they only get notified every hour. Those are some extreme examples, but they provide a sense of how people differ in their media use.”
How Should You Respond?
Should we continue multitasking with greater and greater frequency? Do we practice prudence?
For perspective, let’s turn to Life Crossing Training (Life XT) cofounder Nate Klemp. “Multitasking is to the brain as junk food is to the body,” said Klemp. “Mindfulness is to the brain as physical exercise is to the body.”
Klemp recommends meditating each day, even if limited to five-minute intervals. He and other experts claim meditation improves focus and overall cognitive health and well-being.
No one study ends the debate on any subject, but a preponderance of evidence and common sense tells us the smart-gadget era spreads the average person too thin. We pass people we know who do not look up from their smart phone to see us. We watch television or otherwise engage family members and friends, only for them to spend half or more their time texting, on social medial, or surfing the internet.
When so much of the population possesses the attention span of a gnat, we should consider whether multitasking comes at too high of costs. Besides, deterring personal interaction, the Stanford and USFC findings suggest multitasking causes long-term cognitive decline.
Jerry Beller, Lead Author & Researcher, Beller Health Research Institute
Jerry is the lead author and researcher at Beller Health Research Institute. Among his accomplishments, Beller wrote the first book on the newest dementia classification, LATE, and is one of the few in the world to write books on all 15 primary dementia types.
 Melina R. Uncapher and Anthony D. Wagner, ‘Minds and Brains of Media Multitaskers: Current Findings and Future Directions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115.40 (2018), 9889–96 <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1611612115>.
 Stanford University, ‘Heavy Multitaskers Have Reduced Memory’, Stanford News, 2018 <https://news.stanford.edu/2018/10/25/decade-data-reveals-heavy-multitaskers-reduced-memory-psychologist-says/> [accessed 21 August 2019].
 Nate Klemp, ‘Want to Improve Your Memory? A Decade-Long Stanford Study Suggests You Should Stop Doing This 1 Thing’, Inc.Com, 2019 <https://www.inc.com/nate-klemp/want-to-improve-your-memory-a-decade-long-stanford-study-suggests-you-should-stop-doing-this-1-thing.html> [accessed 21 August 2019].