Monday, September 6, 2010

Brains Need Downtime, Too

I recently listened to a NPR Fresh Air interview with Matt Richtel who covers technology and telecommunications for The New York Times.

You can listen to the 30-minute interview here:

Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

“One study conducted at Stanford University, which showed that heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information — and trouble focusing on tasks. It starts to take a toll on your productivity.

Other research says that heavy video game playing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. E.g., If you are at a cocktail party and hear several conversations you can only focus on one at a time. Apply that concept to a work environment where you are multitasking. When you switch among tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

Richtel says that research is ongoing, particularly into how heavy technology may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, how addictive behavior can lead to poor decision-making and how the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information.

One way of looking at all of this research, he says, is to think of technology the way we think about food.

Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too — in the 21st century and the modern age — we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential," he says. "And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is junk food and some food is healthy. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts.

What if you don’t have downtime and you are always fiddling with your device? There seems to be some evidence that this takes a neurological toll…it seems you are not spending time creating. During boredom you may be creating something…When you are constantly on your device, you can be experiencing stress.

What’s the effect on long-term memory? The short answer is we are not sure yet but over time heavy cortisol production [stress related] can reduce your ability to retain memory. This is a working hypothesis.

What are the upsides to technology? Research from the University of Rochester indicates that certain video gamers have more visual acuity than those who don't game. And there's value in offloading thinking to a computer, he says — by, for example, using Google Maps instead of calling for directions or organizing information in Excel instead of keeping track of it in your head.

We are not unaware of the enormous benefits technology provides.“

To read his NYTimes article on the subject go here:

Any thoughts on multitasking, especially as it relates to students?


  1. Downtime is both creative time and rejuvenating time both mentally and physically. We need to understand that this downtime is not only important, but it is one of the best ways to productively spend ones time! As a parent I have observed this in myself and in my children. Now science can explain it physiologically.

    Multitasking students? We are teaching them bad habits to think that multitasking is desirable. Sometimes it is necessary but it should not be a goal in itself.

  2. "over time heavy cortisol production [stress related] can reduce your ability to retain memory"...perhaps this is why parenthood causes short-term memory loss. Kids, and people in general, need to understand the difference between being effective w/in a workload and being hyperloaded (spread too thin). Multitasking is a good talent and needs to developed in balance with productivity.