This common activity you do all day long is killing your memory

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Would you say you are good at multitasking? For many, this seems like a valuable skill, especially in the workplace. However, multitasking might not be as good for your brain health as you think.

A recent study published in Nature suggests that, specifically, the act of “media multitasking” may impair your ability to pay attention and even affect your memory over time. 

“As we navigate our lives, we have these periods in which we’re frustrated because we’re not able to bring knowledge to mind, expressing what we know,” senior author Kevin Madore said. “Fortunately, science now has tools that allow us to explain why an individual, from moment to moment, might fail to remember something stored in their memory.

For this study, the authors examined something called preparatory attention, which is the brain’s ability to shift its processing muscle towards relevant goals when it comes to memory recall, and how it may be impacted by multitasking.

“Such preparatory attention goes to the very heart of the brain’s capacity to predict, and to organize its data gathering and processing accordingly,” Dr. Charles Shroeder at Columbia University said

Preparatory attention can be measured using something called electroencephalogram (EEG). This involves placing electrodes on the scalp which can measure the brain’s activity. This is exactly what the authors used for this study. 

“Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” Madore said. “We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter – in particular before you do different tasks – are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”

The researchers used EEG to asses attention in 80 young adults aged 18-26 by showing participants a series of images on a computer screen. They were asked to classify each object by pleasantness or size. After a quick break, they were shown even more objects and asked if they had already been classified or were new. Through this practice, they were able to identify any lapses in attention. 

The results showed a correlation between lower sustained attention and a lower performance on memory tasks

“While it’s logical that attention is important for learning and for remembering, an important point here is that the things that happen even before you begin remembering are going to affect whether or not you can actually reactivate a memory that is relevant to your current goal,” study author Anthony Wagner said.

They also found that those participants who reported a higher amount of media multitasking showed a tendency for reduced attention, which led to poor memory performance. 

“We found evidence that one’s ability to sustain attention helps to explain the relationship between heavier media multitasking and worse memory,” Madore said. “Individuals who are heavier media multitaskers may also show worse memory because they have lower sustained attention ability.”

Madore added that it’s important to note that, for now, these findings point to correlation, not causation. It’s unclear whether media multitasking actually leads to lapses in attention or if people who struggle with attention and memory are just more likely to media distractions. 

“We can’t say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures,” he said. “though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions… I think our data point to the importance of being consciously aware of attentiveness.”

Daphne Bavelier, a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said she was impressed by the study. 

“The work is important as it identifies a source of interindividual variability when one is cued to remember information,” she said. 

A previous study in 2018, also led by Wagner, had come to a similar conclusion when looking at the relationship between media multitasking and various domains of cognition. In this case, Wagner pointed out that it is actually impossible to multitask in the way we imagine. 

“Well, we don’t multitask. We task switch,” he said. “The word ‘multitasking’ implies that you can do two or more things at once, but in reality our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth.”

This most recent study, however, provides new opportunities to dive deeper into how multitasking actually affects the brain leading up to memory recall, Madore said. It may even lead to new understandings about diseases and health conditions that affect memory. 

“We have an opportunity now,” he said, “to explore and understand how interactions between the brain’s networks that support attention, the use of goals and memory relate to individual differences in memory in older adults both independent of, and in relation to, Alzheimer’s disease.”