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Media Multitasking Is Associated With Lower Brain Density

You're reading this while your mind is focused on something else, aren't you?
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It's far too tempting, not to mention easy, for me to let my eyes wander over to my Twitter feed while a movie I'm only half-watching quietly murmurs on in the background. I may as well admit it: I'm short on attention and lost in an online carnival of media spectacle that constantly demands it. I'm a media multitasker and, new research suggests, my brain might be different than those who stick to one activity at a time.


Previous research has associated the uniquely millennial affliction of media multitasking with a host of concerning effects like depressive behaviour, anxiety, and poor cognitive control. Even so, little is known about what exactly is happening in the brain when we spread our attention across disparate media like cold butter on toast, which inevitably tears the whole thing apart.

people who frequently juggle media displayed lower density levels

To find out, two neuroscientists at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness, Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai, undertook a study with the aim of linking media multitasking to changes in regions of the brain associated with cognitive control.

According to their paper, published today in PLOS One, people who tweet and watch Buffy at the same time have less dense grey matter in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain that has been associated with cognitive abilities.

"Notably, ACC has been implicated in dual-task paradigms where an individual is faced with competing stimuli and responses associated with two or more tasks," the authors wrote. "Analogue to this, in media multitasking, individuals are confronted with distinct task demands associated with the multiple media types they are using simultaneously."

it's not The Simpsons that (could, maybe) be messing with my head—it's watching The Simpsons, tweeting, and reading an article, all at the same time

In the study, Loh and Kanai asked 75 adults to fill out a questionnaire describing their level of media multitasking. A high Media Multitasking Index, or MMI, score, they hypothesized, would be correlated with abnormalities in the ACC. After conducting fMRI brain scans and analyzing the resulting images for brain matter density, the researchers discovered that, as they suspected, people who frequently juggle media displayed lower density levels in the ACC.

The ACC has also been associated with emotional processing and motivation, and previous research has specifically linked low grey matter density in the region to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Given that the correlation between media multitasking and various mental illnesses has been established, the researchers suggest that the ACC could play a key role in this regard, as well.

It's important to note that just because we know where something is happening in the brain, that doesn't necessarily mean we know what is happening. The researchers are careful to note that they've only established a link between media multitasking, negative behaviours, and a region in the brain, not causation between those things. Still, their findings have explanatory potential, given the wealth of research that links the ACC to the kinds of behaviours that high MMI scores have also been associated with, pending further research.

It wasn't so long ago that my mom was telling me that watching The Simpsons would mess up my brain. Well, if Loh and Kanai are right, it's not The Simpsons that (could, maybe) be messing with my head—it's watching The Simpsons, tweeting, and reading an article, all at the same time. Indeed, the internet is a glittering vortex of utterly irresistible trash, and our brains may very well be morphing to accommodate it.