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The Brains of Highly Distracted People Look Smaller

You can watch TV or play on your phone—but maybe don't do both.
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For the first time ever—or at least since public health authorities began tracking this stuff— rates of mental illness among young adults 18 to 25 are exceeding the rates seen among older Americans.

That's according to remarks made earlier this year by Tom Price, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, based on his department's latest nationwide mental health data. Anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness are rampant among people in their 20s, the data shows.


There are a lot of theories about what's causing this; political, economic, and job volatility top the list, along with the steady seep of technology into every corner of our lives. And some combination of several (or all) of those factors are probably underlying the rise in 20-something angst.

But while everyone acknowledges there's a problem, and many are investigating treatment options—from better drugs to more-perfect forms of cognitive behavioral therapy—there's not much talk about how the ways we use our brains may be contributing to these problems. That may soon change.

Back in 2014, a pair of University College London researchers published a study on "media multitasking"—a term you've probably heard, and understand to mean using two or more media devices at the same time. Watching TV while messing around on a laptop is the classic example. But switching between apps and programs on a smartphone can also be considered media multitasking, says Kep Kee Loh, first author of the UCL study.

"Research has demonstrated that brain structure can be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience," Loh and his coauthors write in the study. Based on that finding, they were curious to see if the brain structures of heavy media multitaskers looked different from the brains of light media multitaskers. The answer was yes. One region of the brain in particular—the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is involved with focus and emotional control—was smaller among people who engaged in lots of media multitasking compared to their single-tasking counterparts.


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Loh says other research has associated reduced ACC size with mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. But, he adds, his study only indicates an association—not a cause-and-effect relationship—between media multitasking and potentially unhealthy brain changes. It's possible people with small ACCs just engage in more media multitasking—or it's possible that heavy amounts of media multitasking are the mental-health equivalent of junk food, or too much sedentary time. We just don't know.

New research, published this month in Science Advances, seems to strengthen the case that too much multitasking is bad news for our brains, and potentially for our mental health. But the study doesn't look at multitasking; instead it looks at the benefits of sustained focus.

A team from Germany's Max Planck Institute asked adults ranging in age from 20 to 55 to engage in three months of near-daily mental training, which consisted of meditation-based exercises for "cultivating present-moment attention." Using MRI, the study team found people's ACCs grew "thicker" in response to the training. This is in line with past research that has linked meditation and mindfulness with changes in brain morphology, and specifically with more robust ACCs.

"I think it's reasonable to assume a highly-distracted multitasking state is the opposite of a concentrated state in meditation," says Miles Neale, a psychotherapist and clinical instructor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He explains that meditation is in part about observing without reacting—of building tolerance to discomfort and resisting urges. The ways most of us use technology encourage just the opposite types of behaviors, he says.

To sum up the state of the research, we have preliminary studies linking media multitasking to brain characteristics associated with mental health disorders. We also have research suggesting focus-based cognitive activities—stuff like mindfulness meditation—can enlarge and strengthen these same parts of the brain.

There are plenty of lingering questions—holes that future research needs to fill in. But what we know already suggests that spending our days flitting from one task to the next—checking email while on a work call, or sliding through social media feeds while watching TV or hanging out with friends—may be atrophying parts of our brain that we should instead be working to strengthen.

That doesn't mean we should all sign up for meditation classes (although it's not a bad idea). But taking time for sustained focus and single-tasking—whether on our devices or off them—may help knock down the stress and anxiety many young Americans are now experiencing.

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