Neuroscience|The Strong Causality Between Multitasking and Brain Damage

Research has demonstrated multitasking can cause cognitive impairment to our brains and affect our memory and work productivity. Empirical research has demonstrated that multitasking comes with the byproduct of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, ADHD and other symptoms. According to Daniel J., “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.” Studies found that chronic stress and anxiety are terribly harmful to our brains. Studies found that having our brain constantly shift gears boost stress and leaves us mentally and physically exhausted. 


Turning on the computer and opening a dozen pages at the same time was my daily schedule. Time is limited and we have seen people tackle the day’s assignments all at once, especially the office works who execute complex multiple activities simultaneously every single day, aiming to maximize their work efficiency. Those who work several projects simultaneously repeatedly switching from one project to another. They impair their brain without awareness and they label their bad performance in the name of carelessness or aging. 



Studies confirmed that the brain consumes a lot of energy when switching between different tasks, which damages our IQ and memory. Significantly, the higher complexity of multitasks promises greater brain damage.


“Numerous studies have indicated that people who put in too many hours at their jobs, either by choice or by requirement, become inefficient.” ― S.J. Scott, Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking


Media Multitasking induces depression, anxiety and more stress. Multitaskers tend to maximize their time but they lower their efficiency without awareness.


The term multitask was coined in 1965, which described the capabilities of a new computer system. Multitasking has become a common thing for office workers to stay competitive at work. Many employees even list their “ability to multitask” on their resume and job applications.


Multitasking has a huge negative impact on your attentiveness based on scientific data. Studies proposed that heavy media multitaskers favor parallel processing of multiple information sources over one primary task. Studies found that heavy media multitaskers performed worse than light media multitaskers because their brains cost more energy on filtering out irrelevant information in the process.


Do our brains design for multi-tasking? 

Research confirms that doing multitasking is stressful to the brain. Studies found that after only 20 minutes of interruptions, people feel higher stress. By multitasking, the estimated time of finishing a certain project delayed. If we compare a project to an enemy, by fighting over an enemy one after another, we get a higher chance of success than dealing with several enemies at a time. I would say it’s the power of focus.

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The Potential Costs of Multitasking

1. Multitasking Damages Our Concentration and Memory  

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are bombarded with streams of electronic information on a regular basis proved to show a lower ability of concentration and memory.


Stanford researchers compared groups of people and found that heavy multitaskers achieve lower performance were than those who do a single thing at a time. Additionally, the study found that talking on the phone while driving shares the same level of distraction similar to drunk driving. According to the info of RAC Foundation, a British motoring research charity, texting while driving decreases 91% reaction time. That’s a terrifying number. Additionally, studies found that a pedestrian’s field of vision reduced 95% when using an electronic device as he walks. There’s a term called “inattentional blindness.”


There are common causes of brain fog, such as long-term sleep deprivation, chronic depression, anxiety disorders or chronic stress. Fish oil supplements are a rich source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which might be beneficial to heal brain damage.  Also, studies found that vitamin E does benefit the memory in older people. A 2014 study in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association found that high amounts of vitamin E do help people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Foods high in vitamin E include almonds, spinach, avocados, kiwifruit, trout, shrimp, olive oil, wheat germ oil, broccoli, sunflower seeds and squash. Vitamin E good for wound healing.  There are reports claim that vitamin E speeds wound healing and improves the wounds of burns and several physicians recommend topical vitamin E after skin surgery or resurfacing.


2. Multitasking Lowers People’s IQ and Efficiency 

A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines, which is similar to the effect of smoking marijuana or staying up all night. Studies found that the worst likelihood is that our cognitive capacity might diminish to the point of an 8-year-old child.


Each time we switch between tasks we are losing time as our brain recalibrates to accommodate the switch. This is incredibly inefficient and time-consuming indeed. Some people found that  multitasking takes them 50-100% longer than the equivalent task.”(Reference: The myth of multitasking, BY JANICE WINDT, 2018)


3.  Multitasking Guarantees Lower Emotional Intelligence

Brain scans reveal that chronic multitaskers have less gray matter, which is heavily linked to depression, anxiety, and poor impulse control.


Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices and scan their brains with MRI.  They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, where is the region responsible for emotional control, empathy and cognition. Studies found that multitaskers encounter the difficulty of organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information.


Dr. Clifford Nass, the author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, asserts that the more you multitask, the less you’re able to learn, concentrate, or be nice to people. He firmly believes multitasking stunts our creativity and lowers our ability to problem-solving. 


Assistant professor of psychology at MSU Mark Becker tends to explore the association between media multitasking and mental health problems. Becker articulates “We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety” or more depressed and anxious people are turning to media multitasking to distraction from their mental problems. The study was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, which surveyed 319 people on their media use and mental health.



4. Multitasking Guarantees  Lower Productivity and More Errors

Experts estimate that switching between tasks causes 40% loss in productivity. Every interruption costs the brain added time to get back into the workflow. There are studies estimated the cost of multitasking in the United States and wasted productivity reaches $650 billion annually. 


Multi-tasking lowers our attention span and deteriorates our memory capability, which ultimately causes more mistakes. Studies found that subjects who were given 3 tasks simultaneously made three times as many errors as those given 2 tasks. 


Further, studies found that switching tasks repeatedly disrupts short-term memory and reduces IQ by 15 points temporarily. 

Excessive Multitasking: Warning Sign of Addiction

According to Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. In a sense, people who favor multi-tasking seek new external projects for the sake of extra stimulation. 


By multitasking, your brain is rewarded with a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine just as what you feel as you drink caffeine or have alcohol.


▲Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload



Switching in and out of the tasks makes your brain exhausted.Stop switching back and forth between different tasks and focus on one coherent task at a time. 


If we accomplish one task after one, the stress on our shoulder goes down one after another, whereas if we execute multitasking, we are supposed to accomplish all the projects by the end of the day, so our stress level and anxiety level would be drop until the end of the day. By multitasking, you might not get anything done by noon, cau’z every project might just half-done yet, so the anxiety level might be high. To accelerate the schedule by multitasking is just an illusion. You might question your ability for not accomplishing anything during the daytime.


Centering on a singular task assures that you are able to make a better decision in a relatively anxiety-free environment. mono-tasking guarantees full-focus. Block out distractions and make it a habit. 



Multitasking Contributes to Premature Brain Aging

According to Dr. Elissa Epel, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, anxiety and stressful behaviors such as multitasking shorten telomeres and promote brain cell aging. 


Stress of all kinds decreases the length of telomeres, structures at the end of your chromosomes. What matters is that when telomeres reach a critically shortened length, the cell stops dividing and dies.  When the brain receives more information than it can process, posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) takes over.


Shortened telomeres lead to the atrophy of brain cells, whereas longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells. The telomere length turns out to be one of the significant indicators of cellular aging, which proves to have strong connections with some diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.


The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC or DL-PFC) is an area where is the endpoint for the dorsal pathway (stream), which is concerned with how to interact with stimuli.DLPFC is responsible for working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, inhibition, and abstract reasoning. The DLPFC is also the highest cortical area, which involves motor planning, organization and regulation.


Hormonal changes Potentially trigger brain fog

A drop in estrogen level during menopause might cause symptoms of forgetfulness, lower concentration and cloudy thinking.


What makes multitaskers performed worse? The structure of our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. In other words, people who do two things at once violates the function of the brain and physically damaging the brain with proofs.


Be a Serial Tasker Rather than a Multitasker

Multitasking is detrimental to brain health, mental health and work performance. It’s such a commonplace thing that people engaged in multiple demanding activities at a time. Nevertheless, Multitasking proves to counterproductive. Multitasking does more harm than good, either to brain health or work performance. Indeed, we are unable to multitask so much as we attempt to. Doing one thing at a time will make you sharper in mind and make your attention more focused and take you less total time.


Aside from brain damage, multitask will multiply the difficulties of concentration, organization, and attention to details during execution. Give a task 100% of your attention. 


Key points: Center on a singular task. Do not tackle multiple tough tasks simultaneously. It does you no good.

Keep reading 

Margaret W. Lavigne 司馬儀

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