What are you doing right this very second—besides reading this on your phone, tablet, or computer? Are you using any other kind of media device to, say, catch up the season premier of Scandal, scan your work email, or read up on symptoms of athlete's foot? You might want to nix the multitasking media, according to a new study that says the habit may actually be killing your brain cells.
Research done by neuroscientists at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science found that the more a person simultaneously used mobile phones, laptops, and other media devices, the less gray matter they had in their brains. "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," says Kep Kee Loh, M.D., one of the authors of the study.
The shrinking brain tissue represents a growing problem. Gray matter may be grayish brown, but it should really be called "gold matter" considering how valuable it is. Because it contains the majority of the body's neuronal cell bodies, it's responsible for everything from muscle control to self-control, not to mention sensory perception, speech, and emotion. In fact, scientists think that the amount of gray matter we retain may be the best indicator of health as we age.
And it does seem to be just a problem with screen time. Previous research has found that different types of multitasking—like a learning a hand-clapping game while practicing math drills—can actually increase gray matter and neural processing speed. It's thought to be a reason why people often get their best ideas while on a run or working with their hands. But this study gives as many questions as answers. Today, is it even possible not to media multitask? For instance, does texting and listening to music on the same phone count? Does the brain boost we get from running still count if we're listening to our iPod and watching the TV at the gym?
The researchers say that more work needs to be done to establish whether the media multitasking is causing the decline in gray matter or if people with less gray matter are simply more attracted to sensory overload. In the meantime, give yourself permission to put down your laptop and just enjoy watching your movie tonight—brain matter notwithstanding, you'll probably enjoy it more anyhow!