Consider a day when you open that email and 200 others, respond to each, download the attachments, upload your replies, click the link the email sent, post it on social media for sharing, Instagram it to spread the visual message, attend to your text messages, take that call to reinforce that email you just got, accidentally click the pop-up which brings you to a shoe shopping site where you notice an unrelated item which leads you to view a popular YouTube clip which you tweet about only to see that there is another tweet that gets your attention until you glance at the notifications of your time management app telling you it is time to meditate, in overlapping stretches of time. With all these, where is your mind really on?
It stressed me just to write about all those things that are typical in one fell swoop of a digital moment. But for those whose daily lives come close to what I have just described, what does science say about the stress of digital multi-tasking and your resulting ability to make sense of things? I have written about this in 2013 but there are new studies we should consider.
First, the recent study by the Pew Research Center wanted to find out from self-reported answers whether digital technologies, the Internet and social media cause high levels of stress. They gave two main findings: that one, Internet and social media users do not claim to have higher stress than non-users; and two, women reported higher stress from Internet and social media use but only for those tied to stressful events that they have been made aware of by social media. They called this the “cost of sharing”.
I am not surprised by these findings since the basis was self-reporting. Those who have been so immersed in social media most likely will not notice their own level of stress doing many things at once. It is like any of us being used to the spinning of the Earth since there was never a time since your birth that it was never spinning, that we will only notice it if there were a change in its spin or if there were an earthquake.
But multitasking has indeed been found to cause the kind of stress to your working memory that makes you end up shortchanging yourself.
Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist (whose works on what happens to the brain on music will fascinate you) wrote a very thoughtful article on what you may be foregoing by overloading yourself with simultaneous tasks while plugged in to the digital world. He said that while you think answering all those emails and posting all those things on FB all at once may make you feel accomplished, you are just deluding yourself.
Stress makes you produce high levels of cortisol and adrenaline which when they are ruling your brain, are like a bunch of teenagers focused on a Friday night gimmick. You cannot ask them to find the solution to the plumbing incident that just emerged in their own bathroom as their minds are muddled by only one overarching thought.
This is made worse because embedded in the digital life are ceaseless offers you cannot refuse – novelty! Hello new email, new text message alert, new notification!
Levitin said that every time you “click” or press “send”, it hits your brain to make it release the “reward” hormone called dopamine which makes you want to do more of it. But you pay a price, doing more of that prevents your working memory to really shape your understanding, your intelligence. When multitasking, you are prevented from getting a good grip on information, relating it to what you already know and more importantly to filter and categorize information.
I read the studies he cited and one of them struck me because they have been testing the brain in terms of “holding thoughts” at any given time and for now, they really think that since the brain works in waves, we can only hold as many thoughts at once in a wave. When we multitask, we breach that limit and the cost is we shape a lame brain hooked only on novelty and nothing more.
Multi-tasking gives you a double whammy: you get to cultivate your inner moron and worse, you get to love doing it. Since you only live once (or YOLO as I have heard from young people), you can be fashionable and stick to being a digital bee or you can inhabit your life as a slow but elegant hedgehog (maybe read the book for a start to see why you cannot text and still get all the life-giving goodness of that book).
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire."
This story was first published in Rappler.com, a Manila-based social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change.
*Illustration by Connie