A recently published study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health shows that the brain’s capacity to move back and forth from distractions diminishes with age. The findings, which were reported in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 11, 2011), ultimately suggest that multi-tasking may impact our working memory, i.e., the ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind. According to one of the study’s authors, Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center:
The impact of distractions and interruptions reveals the fragility of working memory. This is an important fact to consider, given that we increasingly live in a more demanding, high-interference environment, with a dramatic increase in the accessibility and variety of electronic media and the devices that deliver them, many of which are portable.
Other researchers are more direct in pointing a finger at the potential cause of this problem. According to Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, “persons are suffering in terms of cognition and attention spans because of the time spent online.” Interestingly, some studies have shown that students may be aware that technology is having a detrimental effect on their academic performance and are open to learning time management strategies and strategies for managing cognitive workloads.
What exactly does all of this research mean for the average tech junkie remains unclear. At the very least, it may be an early wake up call to have a more measured approach to social media. If the tweets are in the thousands and the blog posts number in the hundreds it may not be healthy to continually jump on an iPad to use Bizzy or check on a Facebook account. In other words, give it a rest or the work product may ultimately suffer.
[Update: June 14, 2011]
As per this article in the Daily Mail, Facebook fatigue may be catching on — six million US users apparently deactivated their accounts in May 2011.