MIND
May 9, 2017

Multitasking Drains the Brain

Brain scans of people coping with fragmented attention show how much extra effort it requires.

You know something's wrong when you can't even follow the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. Most likely, the problem is too much multi-tasking and fragmenting your attention.

By examining brain scans of people watching movie clips, researchers were able to gain new insights into how our brain tries to cope as our attention becomes more and more fragmented.

Using clips from Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond movies, researchers investigated the differences between screening 6.5-minute clips from these movies and watching the same clips chopped up into 50-second segments. They found that viewers' brains worked much more smoothly and efficiently when they watched the longer clips.

Those who viewed the longer clips were able to spend the entire time concentrating on a single task, which was much less taxing to their mental faculties.

Study co-author, Iiro Jääskeläinen, a cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, sees parallels with multitasking, since both involve a fragmented attention. In multitasking, the brain is concentrating on many activities at once, usually with less than ideal results. People who watched the 50-second clips were forcing their brains to concentrate on many different activities over time, while those who viewed the 6.5-minute clips were able to spend the entire time concentrating on a single task, which was much less taxing to their cognitive faculties.

Multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent. From busy offices to simply crossing the street, multitasking is often just another word for distracted.

There are also parallels between screening fragmented movie clips and ADHD. People with ADHD often have trouble completing tasks, needing to start a task over several times before they’re able to finish it.

Jääskeläinen recommends completing one task each day rather than working on a dozen different tasks simultaneously. If only life were so simple.

By noting where the brain was most active while trying to combine the fragmented movie clips into a coherent whole, the researchers were able to observe the brain as it worked through the process of integrating separate events together, something we all do constantly just to make sense of the world, but which becomes even more important while multitasking. The findings suggest that the posterior temporal and dorsomedial prefrontal cortices, as well as the cerebellum and dorsal precuneus, are all involved in this process.

And on a less scientific level, the study may explain part of the pleasure of binge-watching. If you record a long series or movie, you'll enjoy watching it more if you screen it in longer segments.

The study appears in Human Brain Mapping.

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