Multitasking may actually be hurting your brain

Can't concentrate? Study shows you may need to stop Twittering, blogging and IM'ing

While perusing their e-mail, many people are also carrying on a couple of instant messaging conversations and/or checking out online news sites while Twittering or texting.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you might be in more trouble than you realize.

A Stanford University study released last week found that, compared with people who don't have many distractions, those who are "regularly bombarded" with multiple streams of electronic information and media have more problems with their memory and have a harder time paying attention and switching from one task to another.

Scientists used to think that multitaskers had stronger focus than their single-tasking colleagues. Stanford said that its study, which put 100 students through three different tests, proved otherwise. Multitaskers "are suckers for irrelevancy," said Stanford professor Clifford Nass, a researcher who worked on the study. "Everything distracts them."

Stanford reported that in one of the three tests, the students were shown two images with red and blue rectangles. They were told to ignore the blue rectangles. When they were shown the second image, they were asked if the red rectangles were in a different position than in the first image.

People who generally do little multitasking had little trouble with the task. The major multitaskers, however, were consistently distracted by the blue rectangles and performed "horribly," according to the university.

The second test checked the subjects' memory and, again, the multitaskers failed to perform well. The third test, which focused on how well the students could switch from one job to another, had similar results.

"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," said Eyal Ophir, a student and researcher at Stanford, in a statement. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

The university reported that researchers now are studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or if they are damaging their cognitive control by multitasking so frequently.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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