Is Multitasking Killing Your Brain?

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


multitaskingI glance at the people around me. She has her email up on the computer screen in order to get through the abundance of emails loaded in her inbox. He has a window open to write that test he hasn’t gotten around to creating.

The guy at the end of the table has student work out as he feverishly writes feedback to the students while also texting his wife about funny stories that happened to her today.

Me? I am texting a person to discuss how to help third grade teachers think about what it means to have students truly engage in critical and creative thinking, reviewing my plan to help students co-create their learning about genetic engineering, and writing a to do list to ensure that I get my son to his weekend soccer tournament with everything he needs.

What do we all have in common? We are all in a meeting “focused” on generating a school wide plan for next year.

Multitasking has become the thing we all do in the name of efficiency. Larry Kim’s blog, Multitasking is killing your brain, argues that multitasking has become the norm but that our brains are not “wired” to do this effectively. Instead, he points to research that indicates multitasking lowers work quality and efficiency as well as increases stress hormones.

Speaking with other ‘multitaskers,’ we all notice that we often feel more disconnected from our efforts when we attempt to work on multiple projects at one time or allow email, texting, Facebook, and other digital distractions interrupt our primary work.  We realize that our efforts are not as productive and we accomplish less than when we remain focused on one thing.  It seems that we make more mistakes and forget to include ideas or information in our work.  Distractions are more apt to catch our attention and further reduce our production.  Stress builds up within us and increase our exhaustion level.

Chris Woolston’s reporting helps us to understand why.  Since our brains can only focus on a single complex task at a time, it takes time and effort to switch our brain from one task to another.  Switching back and forth results in moments in which absolutely nothing is cognitively performed, let alone accomplished.  While it may only be a fraction of a second for each switch, those moments add up as we continue to alternate back and forth between the various tasks or tasks and digital media.

Worse, the research cited in these articles indicate that multitasking can have negative impacts on our memory and health. Short term memory is affected because less time and effort is focused upon each task.  Release of stress hormones may lead to a range of health issues from headaches and sleeping trouble to heart disease and depression.  Additionally, other research suggests that multitasking with multiple electronic devices may lead to permanent cognitive damage as MRI scans have found individuals fitting this description have less brain density in areas that control empathy and emotional control.

What implications does an understanding of the negative effects of multitasking have for our students and children of today? (See Annie Murphy Paul’s article on various studies illustrating impacts multitasking with digital devices do have on students!)  How can we help them to focus deeply on their learning and disrupt their growing multitasking habit?  How do we help students learn to deeply enjoy their learning process? Add your thoughts and experiences to the comments section below.

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