Does simultaneously using a mobile phone, a laptop and other media devices change the structure of our brains? Sure, so did reading that sentence. We all have different experiences and therefore different brains.
The downside to brain imaging is that neuroscience and psychology tend to make something from nothing. And a new paper finding that multi-taskers have lower grey-matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who use just one device occasionally will get lots of mainstream media attention even though it tells us nothing.
Nonetheless, neuroscientists Kep kee Loh and Dr. Ryota Kanai say it supports earlier studies claiming connections between high media-multitasking activity and poor attention in the face of distractions, along with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.
the authors concede that their study reveals a link rather than causality but suggest that maybe it means that those with less-dense grey matter are more attracted to media multitasking rather than conceding that brain imaging is abused for sensationalism, especially in small studies.
The researchers at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain structures of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media.
They found that, independent of individual personality traits, people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.
Kep kee Loh says, "Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being. Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure."
Scientists have previously demonstrated that brain structure can be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience. The neural pathways and synapses can change based on our behaviors, environment, emotions, and can happen at the cellular level (in the case of learning and memory) or cortical re-mapping, which is how specific functions of a damaged brain region could be re-mapped to a remaining intact region.
Other studies have shown that training (such as learning to juggle, or taxi drivers learning the map of London) can increase grey-matter densities in certain parts of the brain.
"The exact mechanisms of these changes are still unclear," says Kep kee Loh. "Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC. A longitudinal study is required to unambiguously determine the direction of causation."