Our minds are battlegrounds where different media fight for attention. Through the Internet, desktops, mobile screens, TVs and more, we are constantly awash with headlines, links, images, icons, videos, animations and sound. This is the way of the 21st century – a saturated sensory environment where multi-tasking is the name of the game. Even as I type these words, my 24-inch monitor displays a Word document and a PDF side-by-side, while my headphones pump Lux Aeterna into my head (see image below).
You might think that this influx of media would make the heaviest of users better at processing competing streams of information. But Eyal Ophir from Stanford University thinks otherwise. From a group of 262 students, Ophir indentified two sets of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ multimedia multi-taskers from the extreme ends of the group. The heavy users were more likely to spend more time reading, watching TV, surfing the web, sending emails or text messages, listening to music and more, and more likely to do these at the same time.
The heavy group also fared worse at tasks designed to test their ability to filter out irrelevant information or, surprisingly, to switch from one task to another. In short, they show poorer “cognitive control“, a loosely grouped set of abilities that include allocating attention and blocking out irrelevancy in the face of larger goals. They’re more easily distracted by their many incoming streams of data, or less good at shining the spotlight of their attention on a single goal, even though they are similar to the light group in terms of general intelligence, performance on creativity tests, basic personality types, and proportion of women to men.
While the world’s media (*cough*Susan Greenfield*cough*) will probably showcase this work as a sign of the mental deficits facing the Twitter generation, Ophir is more measured. For a start, his study wasn’t just focusd on the online world, but on more traditional forms of media like books, radio and television. “It’s probably good to think of this not as an advantage or disadvantage, but rather as a difference in orientation,” he told me. “Light media multitaskers are more in control of their own attention and what information enters their minds, while heavy media multitaskers are more responsive to their environments, and more easily swayed by stimuli that are not pertinent to their current task.”
Whether that’s a problem or not depends very much on the situation. Being easily distracted might not be conducive to the task of knocking out a blog post, but in situations like driving a car, it can be an advantage to have your attention suddenly grabbed by something unexpected, like something on the road.