Is multitasking hurting your brain?

Is multitasking hurting your brain?

Between the constant pull of email, social media sites, video streaming, a jam-packed to-do list at work and the need to squeeze personal time for errands, children, family and friends into an average day, does multitasking seem like the best approach to getting things done?

There’s a good chance you’re kidding yourself if you answered “yes.” And worse, if you typically address several of life’s demands simultaneously, you could be hurting your health.

“The human brain can only complete one mind-intensive task at a time,” says Dr. Shahida Ahmad, a neurologist at Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago. “Recent research has shown a change in the shape of the brain in people who are heavy media multitaskers. Also, a study out of London, conducted by neurologists, has shown that multitasking could result in lower IQ.”

Although it may seem like we’re saving time, multitasking results in lost time. That’s because the brain recalibrates and switches focus every time you shift attention to something else, Dr. Ahmad explains. This slows down your ability to process and retain new information, and often results in mistakes — which, if you’re lucky, will only cost the time needed to correct your errors.

“Rapid and continued switching between complex tasks can also weaken our working short-term memory because it becomes harder to switch between tasks as we age,” Dr. Ahmad says.

This can result in more frequent memory lapses after interruptions, such as forgetting which snack you wanted before your trip to the refrigerator, after an unexpected phone call.

Additionally, the constant pressure of “keeping the plates spinning” is stressful. Stress, in turn, releases elevated levels of cortisol into the bloodstream and opens the door for heart disease, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and diabetes.

Dr. Ahmad suggests reducing your multitasking by creating daily to-do lists that allow you to perform demanding tasks in the earlier part of the day and personal tasks in the evening. Then, try sticking to the idea of completing one task at a time.

Dr. Ahmad also advises practicing mindfulness at some point in the day to help negate the harmful effects of stress and multitasking.

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About the Author

Cassie Richardson
Cassie Richardson

Cassie Richardson, health enews contributor, is regional coordinator on the Public Affairs team for Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She has more than 10 years of experience in health care communications, marketing, media and public relations. Cassie is a fan of musical theater and movies. When she’s not spreading the word about health and wellness advancements, she enjoys writing fiction.