Study: Multitasking overloads the brain, social media makes it worse

HELSINKI, Finland — Some employers specifically seek out individuals who work well when multitasking, but recent research claims that trying to complete numerous tasks at the same time actually hurts productivity.

Now a new study backs that research up, finding that multitasking actually overloads the brain so much that it prevents a person from completing the tasks as efficiently ask if they were doing them one at a time.

Brain scans for multitasking study
The subjects brain areas functioned more smoothly when they watched the films in longer segments. (Courtesy Juha Lahnakoski)

Researchers at Aalto University hooked up 18 study participants to fMRI machines and then had them watch various snippets of movies. The participants viewed 6.5 minute clips of a Star Wars movie, an Indiana Jones movie, and a James Bond movie. During another viewing, they were hooked up to the fMRI machines again and watched clips from the same movies, but only in 50-second spurts that jutted from movie to movie.

The fMRI scans showed that the participants brains’ functioned with greater ease when viewing the 6.5 minute clips.

“To understand temporally extended events, the human brain needs to accumulate information continuously across time. Interruptions that require switching of attention to other event sequences disrupt this process,” the authors write.

In other words, the areas of the brain that are paramount to using fragmented pieces of information — in this case short movie clips — work more efficiently when they’re focusing on just one task at a time. When they’re forced go from task to task in shorter sequences, the brain becomes overloaded.

Iiro Jääskeläinen, an associate professor at the university and co-author of the study, strongly suggests people focus on just one task per day rather than putting their brains to work with a checklist of things to do.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of multitasking. In that case, it seems like there is little real progress and this leads to a feeling of inadequacy. Concentration decreases, which causes stress. Prolonged stress hinders thinking and memory,” says Jääskeläinen in a university news release.

One way to help keep the brain functioning at peak levels while doing work is by avoiding Facebook.

“Social media is really nothing but multitasking, with several parallel plots and issues,” he says. “You might end up reading the news or playing a game recommended by a friend. From the brain’s perspective, social media only increases the load.”

The study was published this month in the journal Human Brain Mapping.