By | Bret Stetka | www.scientificamerican.com
The bulky, modern human brain evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago and, for the most part, has remained largely unchanged. That is, it is innately tuned to analog information—to focus on the hunt at hand or perhaps the forage for wild plants. Yet we now pummel our ancient thinking organ with a daily deluge of digital information that many scientists believe may have enduring and worrisome effects.
A new study published today in Nature supports the concern. The research suggests that “media multitasking”—or engaging with multiple forms of digital or screen-based media simultaneously, whether they are television, texting or Instagram—may impair attention in young adults, worsening their ability to later recall specific situations or experiences.
The authors of the new paper used electroencephalography—a technique that measures brain activity—and eye tracking to assess attention in 80 young adults between the ages of 18 and 26. The study participants were first presented with images of objects on a computer screen and asked to classify the pleasantness or size of each one. After a 10-minute break, the subjects were then shown additional objects and asked whether they were already classified or new. By analyzing these individuals’ brain and eye responses as they were tasked with remembering, the researchers could identify the number of lapses in their attention. These findings were then compared to the results of a questionnaire the participants were asked to fill out that quantified everyday attention, mind wandering and media multitasking.