Focus! The modern world is full of distraction. Although we can think while eating cereal, thinking itself is a “serial-processing” event: we can only consciously attend to one task at once, and attempting more means doing them inefficiently. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin examines how the myth of multitasking and the pressure of thinking in the digital age are detrimental to our brains.
With our ubiquitous digital communications, we are consuming more information and making more decisions (esp filtering info) than humans ever have before. In Why The Modern World Is Bad For Your Brain, Dr. Daniel Levitan discusses facts and findings about how the unnatural strain caused by modern multitasking activities (e.g. working and answering emails) contributes to diminished mental and neurological performance. The many findings are quite damning, for example:
Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot‑smoking.
Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain.
Then there are the metabolic costs that I wrote about earlier. Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.
The conclusion is to remain focused and avoid giving the brain “information overload” – using measures to minimize distraction when performing a given task. Check out the Q&A with Levitin, where he offers advice on maintaining better focus from his book, The Organized Mind.