Digital Stress and Your Brain

A rotating animation of the human brain showin...
A rotating animation of the human brain showing the left frontal lobe in red within a semitransparent skull. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is sometimes also included in the frontal lobe. Other authors include the ACC as a part of limbic lobe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Digital Stress and Your Brain

While conventional wisdom teaches us that multitasking makes us more efficient, research suggests that we’re incapable of efficiently managing more than two tasks at a time. Take a look at how many tabs and programs you have open. Odds are you’re multitasking. As technology becomes more and more a part of our lives, most Americans are learning to do several things at once. Unfortunately, all of our “multitasking” may be anything but — and it can have some serious consequences.
If you have a moment, take a break from what you’re doing to look at this infographic on how multitasking induced stress impacts our brains.
Here are some of the findings in brief:
- Our daily consumption of media has more than doubled in the last 50 years from 5 hours to 12 hours.
- The average computer user checks 40 websites a day, switching between programs 36 times an hour, that means we change tasks more than once every two minutes.
- 61% of adults admit to being addicted to the internet.
- Excessive internet use may lead to the atrophy of grey matter and impact memory, goal-setting, and decision making.
- In one study, 30% of those under 45 said smartphones, cellphones and computers make it harder to focus.
The limits of multitasking
No matter how good our intentions, we may not be as good at multitasking as we may think. One explanation reveals why the human brain can only manage two tasks at once:
1. When the brain is faced with two tasks, the medical prefrontal cortex divides in two so each half can focus on one task.
2. The anterior-most part of the frontal lobes enables the switch between two goals.
3. When a third task comes into play, it’s too much for the brain to handle at once. Consequently, accuracy drops considerably.
In one study, frequent multitaskers:
- Were bad at filtering out irrelevant information.
- Chose extraneous information over task-related information.
- Had a difficult time pulling information from short- or long- term memory into working memory.
- Had a tough time switching from task to task.
In an effort to manage all of the technology and information available, many Americans have adopted a multitasking lifestyle. A study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers studied two groups of people-one that had access to email and one that was cut off. Their study revealed:
- Number of times people switched windows each hour: 37 times for those with email and 18 times for those without email.
- People who read email change screens twice as often. They’re in a steady “high alert” state with more constant heart rates.
- In same study, some participants were cut off from email. They reported that they felt more able to do their jobs and stay on task. They also had fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.
- It took five days for participants to have more natural, variable heart rates after being cut off from email.
Mozilla FireFox web browser report revealed:
- 25% users keep at least 3.59 tabs open
- 50% users have more than 2.38 tabs open
The Health Consequences
Multitasking takes a toll on our brains. Some neuroscientists believe that our brain weren’t designed to handle the amount of information they’re currently processing. Our brains’ attention levels are finite. When our brain is overloaded with information, it can trigger a “fight or flight” reaction. This overload makes the brain feel threatened, so it shuts down higher brain regions that deal with empathy. Some believe that all of these technologies and distractions may rewire our brains, which can impact how we think and behave.
- Instead of focusing on a task, the brain now wants to always switch to the next thing due to the constant flow of new information it receives through multitasking.
- It’s likely a result of the brain’s desire to react to immediate opportunities and threats.
- Consequently, every time you switch to the next task, your brain releases a squirt of dopamine.
Studies have also proven that excessive Internet use may lead to the atrophy of grey matter. This could impact concentration, memory, ability to make decisions and set goals.
What can help?
While it may be difficult to change a multitasking habit — not to mentions how our brains are wired, there are some things you can do to cut back on the amount of digital stress in your life.
1. Intentionally focus on Tasks
- Limit the number of times you log into email each day.
- Designate a time to check your social networking sites or the news.
2. Complete similar tasks together
- Wait every few hours and send messages in batches.
- Subscribe to your favorite sites’ RSS feeds so you can read the blogs’ updates at once.
3. Take a break
- Setup tech-free time with your family and friends daily.
- State you’re no longer reachable after a certain hour.

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