Daily Read: Your Brain on Multitasking

Today’s Daily Read is relevant to my latest post in the Technology and Its Discontents series in that it discusses the harm we are doing to ourselves through our addictions to our phones and screens. Daniel J. Levitin writes in The Guardian about the detrimental effects of information overload on our brains. In this new era of instant electronic gratification, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are getting more done, when in reality, the research shows that we are simply feeding our addiction to dopamine. I already know about the effects of dopamine and wrote about it here; but it’s funny how having knowledge of the harm and seeing how it affects me has still not been enough for me to stop spending so much time with screens. Levitin’s article is a bit lengthy but please don’t let that deter you; five to ten minutes of reading will reward you with some insights that may help you – or at least, inform you. Here’s a tidbit from the article that was new – and also surprising and worrying – to me: “Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from potโ€‘smoking.”

Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

2 Comments Daily Read: Your Brain on Multitasking

  1. Ben

    Interesting article and thoughts! Here’s my take after mulling things over a bit.

    I think there are some unstated assumptions behind the article–something about goals and meaning in life. Never addressed: why do we care if average effective IQ is decreased? What are the anticipated long-term personal and population-level impacts of the technology?

    As far as I can see, everything here is good. On an individual basis, more dopamine for all–woo hoo! ๐Ÿ˜€ On a population basis, let’s say something like mean productivity over the next 100 years is what we care about. In that case, I strongly doubt that current mean IQ is the right measure. I think, in fact, simply increasing the IQ variance is best–and I think that’s what technology does.

    Why is increasing IQ variance the best? Because you’re enabling a group of people to reach higher than they could have before. For some people, the technology is a *boon*. As those people succeed, and others either strive farther from competition or are simply out-competed in the population, the representation of people who can achieve this higher effective IQ should increase. In large populations, apparently this all happens faster than in small populations… so I’ve heard…

    So… score! ๐Ÿ˜€ Go technology ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Ranthropologist

      Well you are certainly the right person to be commenting on this sort of research! ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t think the takeaway here is that technology in and of itself is bad; but I do think it points to issues with how technology is used and whether it is always for the better. You are right that we need to define goals to determine what outcomes we really want to measure. But in general, the point of the article seems to be that sometimes what we think is helping us can actually be harming us. And I hesitate to believe that the multitasking that people are doing is all in the service of some sort of laudable public good, or even economic good. I honestly think it would be better for society if we returned to monotasking! If anything, this article has encouraged me to begin practicing meditation. I recognize that blurry feeling of having my brain constantly scoping for the next squirt of dopamine, and I do NOT like it!


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