Is multimedia dulling your brain? This scientific review thinks so

In modern society, it’s perhaps more difficult to escape multimedia ‘noise’ than it has ever been. Moving adverts adorn public transport, social media occupies people’s spare time and smartphone notifications can invade almost every waking moment of our lives.

There are positives as people receive information from almost every angle. But what are the risks? According to a new review by Anthony Wagner, Director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory, there is evidence to suggest that jumping between multiple media platforms on a consistent basis is dulling the brain.

In the ‘Minds and brains of media multitaskers’ paper, published in the PNAS scientific journal, Wagner and Melina Uncapher of the University of California go through a decade of cognitive research.

It suggests there is a trend whereby people consuming multiple media channels are finding it difficult to perform simple memory tasks. Wagner previously conducted a study on the topic back in 2009.

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A total of 100 subjects were split into groups who regularly engaged in media multitasking and those who did not. In one test, participants had to remember a simple two-stage pattern of flashing lights. Those who admitted heavy multitasking were found to perform worse than others.

“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,” Wagner told the Stanford Report newspaper.  

“In the review we noticed an interesting potential emerging story. One possibility is that reduced working memory occurs in heavy media multitaskers because they have a higher probability of experiencing lapses of attention,” he said.

Asked about whether people should be wary about constantly switching between brain tiring mediums, Wagner said individuals might “choose to be cautious”.

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“Many of us have felt like our technology and media are controlling us – that email chime or text tone demands our attention. But we can control that by adopting approaches that minimize habitual multitasking; we can decide to be more thoughtful and reflective users of media.”

So there you have it. Put down your phone for a while. Your brain needs a break.

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