This is your brain on multiple media

We all know that social media (or really any kind of media, such as video and audio) distracts us from our daily tasks. You’ve got Pokemon GO players wandering into streets and private properties (Gen 1ers, let us throw back our heads in laughter). You might even have several media apps open all at once. You’re reading this right now and you’ve got another feed open at least. And just how many tabs do you have open on your browser? One of them is probably YouTube or Pandora, isn’t it? Or are you a Spotify or a person? What if you’re looking at this on a laptop and your phone is also streaming something?

This isn’t really really me bagging on media, it’s more like me bagging on multi-tasking (I’m no better – I’ve got my 90s alternative rock going on Pandora). Several have observed that this is a myth, and you’ve long suspected that. One can look at it from a psychological, economical, and even metaphysical (on sci.casual?) point of view. From the psychology view, it’s not just doing several things at once, you have to keep in mind several things at once. You also have to switch between the several things that you’re attending to, and that may come with a mental ‘cost‘ depending on how involved you have to be in the tasks you’re switching around. From the economical point of view, you’re less productive because of this switch and you’re more error-prone because you seem less focused. Scratch that – you really are less focused. From the metaphysical standpoint, consider this: if what you’re doing isn’t really on your mind, are you fully experiencing doing? If you are not fully experiencing doing, are you doing?

(Enso by Kanjuro Shibata XX, source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-30, uploaded by Jordan Langeller)

Your mind is clear, and thus you are ready to science. You might also have blood running down your nose, but anyway.

A group of mostly-Finnish scientists wanted to see how adolescent brains process tasks such as reading and listening while distracted by something else. They wanted to address some conflicting studies: some propose that you might be able to train people to maintain split attention with enough exposure to simultaneous media, while others demonstrate that frequent “media multitasking” (MMT) makes one more easily distracted, it increases those task-switching costs that I mentioned earlier, and it might make one more impulsive. Who are we to believe? This is where Moisala et al. step in. And just to drive a point home, they’re going to hook up some Finnish millennials to an fMRI to see how their brains light up. If you’re really interested, this study was part of a larger project on “digital natives;” have a look, if you like.

149 Finnish 13, 16, and 20-24 year olds were selected after being screened for GPA, normal hearning, normal-to-corrected vision, and eligibility for fMRI studies, and their multi-media performance was tested using multiple measures:

  • MMT score – questionnaire that asked what kind of media they used, such as video (including games and streaming), music, reading (including homework), and so on
  • Digital activity score – determined how much time they spent on using digital media
  • Reading – determine if sentences were in/congruous
  • Listening – determine if sentences spoken at them were in/congruous
  • fMRI – what’s lighting up in the brain during their activities

They tested using no distractors, distractors (including music), and doing both reading and listening tasks (same kind of sentence) at the same time. What the researchers meant by ‘incongruous’ was that the sentence was grammatically correct, but it makes no sense because of a word replacement at the end (so all in all, the sentence is incorrect). For example:

  • Congruous: I ate a banana for dessert.
  • Incongruous: I ate a banana for divorce. (anything to cope, I guess…?)

So if a sentence was correct (or not), they would give some sort of hand signal to the researchers. That’s it (well, they’re also getting their brains scanned, but oh well).

So what did Moisala et al. find? They found that MMT scores were not significantly different across ages and genders; that’s good, which means they can rule them out. Unsurprisingly, MMT scores were strongly related to their digital activity scores, so the more media they used, the more time they spent on it (of course, but the way scientific journals are, you have to cover the obvious). MMT scores didn’t really affect performance when the samples were just reading or just listening (no surprise), and didn’t affect their accuracy when they were reading and listening. Teachers who are reading and following this blog (you beautiful people, you) are having a ‘well, duh‘ moment at this since they know that taking a multi-media exposure to teaching something helps with learning. After all, since the samples were reading and listening to the same sentence, there’s no task switching, so no mental cost. The fMRI supported this – there was no relation between MMT scores and what lit up (and how much) in the undistracted and the reading and listening conditions.

What about when they were being distracted, especially by music (for a lot of you reading this post, and me for writing it, uh-oh)? Turns out MMT scores did have a relationship with accuracy – the higher their MMT scores, the more inaccurate they were at reading and writing tasks when distracted, regardless of age or gender, or even how they were distracted. Even the subject’s brains were lighting up differently – attention control is governed by the right side of your brain. The more control you need, the more some parts of that side of the brain light up. This doesn’t mean you’re going to perform any better, though – look at what happened in the study. They used more brain, still got bad scores.

Their brains became more inefficient when distracted.

(source: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-20 Generic, author: hobvias sudoneigm)

(the 13-14 year-old subjects have some excuse – their brains haven’t fully matured yet, which probably explains why middle school was rough for a lot of us)

So for us in the highly-distractable generation (let me close my Pandora tab for a second), we should probably heed the warning that multi-tasking really is a myth. There’s been quite a few blogs online that I’ve run into, thanks mostly to swimming in the Community Pool, about going off the media grid time and again. Our brains may need it more than we think, and who knows how much stuff we can get done once we don’t have the clutter. It’s hard to appreciate what we’re doing when we’re switching to and from it rapid-fire (and I’m mostly caffeinated, so that probably explains a lot of headaches). Some habits will probably die hard, like driving down a long highway and listening to music, but that’s because driving alone down a long stretch of American highway may not be as mentally-demanding the same as, say, a night drive in downtown Tokyo, and I might need some appropriate driving music for that long, lonely drive. But when it comes to some more mentally-demanding work, like writing anything or doing some prep for cooking, it’s worth a try shutting off the other noises. Who knows what we’re like when we’re more aware?


Featured article: Moisala M, Salmela V, Hietajärvi L, Salo E, Carlson S, Salonen O, Lonka K, Hakkarainen K, Salmela-Aro K, Alho K. (2016) Media multitasking is associated with distractability and increased prefrontal ability in adolescents and young adults. NeuroImage 134: 113-121. dx.doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.04.011

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-30, author: Tnvols2)


  1. I remember an article I read probably over ten years ago that scientifically suggested that there was no such thing as “multi-tasking” as we tend to use it on resumes, etc. But just quick switching from one task to another. Thanks for this post and I enjoy your pairing it with the Japanese circle.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. What a great read sci.casual! We really need to debunk the myth of efficient multi-tasking. I was however surprised to read that music is also a distractor. What about listening to classical music whilst studying? Did the study test all types of music? I must imagine that some like heavy metal for e.g. would be distracting, but other more soothing types can actually help.


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