Is media multitasking inefficient? Are women better at it? Does it shrink your brain? New research gives surprising answers.

It has long been held that women are better at multitasking than men. The “first concrete evidence” of this was reported in a July 2010 ScienceDaily article based on research at the University of Hertfordshire, First concrete evidence that women are better multitaskers than men. More recently, an 24 October 2013 study by BBC News Science reporter James Morgan confirmed that women are better at multitasking, noting ruefully that “This suggestion does rankle a bit with men. But there’s no point denying these differences exist”, see Women ‘better at multitasking’ than men, study finds. Of course, males could take some comfort in the then “common knowledge” that multitasking is inherently inefficient.  However, new research on media multitaskers suggests that we may have to think again on both counts.

A 10 October 2014 ScienceDaily article reports on American Academy of Pediatrics research, noting that

Telling youths who are juggling multiple electronic devices to ‘focus on the task at hand’ may not always be good advice, according to research. Contrary to popular belief that multitasking leads to poor performance, researchers found the opposite is true for adolescents who spend a lot of time switching between media devices and tasks. “Maybe practice really does make perfect,” one investigator said.

See Some adolescents adept at media multitasking, Research by high school students reveals.

In fact, there has been some recent debate on media multitasking from a different perspective.

“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being. Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure.”

This quote is from University of Sussex research reported in a 24 September 2014 ScienceDaily article Brain scans reveal ‘gray matter’ differences in media multitaskers“. The research shows that

“people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.”

The researchers are careful to point out that

“Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC.”

Notwithstanding this caution, the UK Daily Mail was happy to report on September 25 2014 that Multitasking makes your brain smaller”. In fact, the Daily Mail goes to town on this story, with a Pugh cartoon and a breakout box SORRY CHAPS, YOUR BRAINS AREN’T MADE FOR MULTITASKING.


However, NHS Choices soon set the record straight with a September 25 2014 article, Media multitasking ‘brain shrink’ claims unproven. This article discusses several limitations in the University of Sussex research, concluding that “Overall, while of interest, this study does not prove that using multiple forms of media causes the brain to shrink.”

So where does this leave us? Clearly, something new is emerging. But is it good or bad?

My guess is that the social networking aspect of media multitasking has given opportunities to a “geeks” who are now able to be super-productive (yes, like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.)  These “super geeks” already have the Anterior Cingulate Cortex smaller grey matter density and the weaker cognitive/emotional control but that is now more than compensated by the social reinforcement from multiple electronic devices.

Of course I could be wrong. Comments are welcome.

Story Sources: 24 October 2013

Media multitasking ‘brain shrink’ claims unproven

Multitasking makes your brain smaller: Grey matter shrinks if we do too much at once. Daily Mail, September 25 2014

Second screening ‘may alter the brain and trigger emotional problems’. The Daily Telegraph, September 24 2014

Journal References: 

University of Hertfordshire. “First concrete evidence that women are better multitaskers than men.” ScienceDaily. 19 July 2010.

University of Sussex. “Brain scans reveal ‘gray matter’ differences in media multitaskers.” ScienceDaily, 24 September 2014.

Kep Kee Loh, Ryota Kanai. Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (9): e106698 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106698

American Academy of Pediatrics. “Some adolescents adept at media multitasking, Research by high school students reveals.” ScienceDaily, 10 October 2014.