February 13, 2016
Don’t worry, you can’t break your brain by channel surfing on the internet.
Luckily, things aren’t that dangerous or simple.
Moreover, I promise you that even though you have now started reading this article, if you decide to *gasp* click over to a different one, your brain will somehow survive to not tell my tale. There will be no brain bruising; in fact your meninges will barely flap.
I wish I could say the same about my feelings.
As a bonus, I can also report that clicking rapidly between social medial sites will not cause you to be kicked out of the Mensa club.
Multitasking is not killing your brain.
Let me tell you why.
Multitasking (which will hereafter be referred to as MT to save time, even though this explanation likely took more time than the amount saved by shortening it) is a hot topic these days with varying opinions about its place in Society. It is a far more complicated kind of thing than merely saying it is either good or bad. For some, it is a required skill in everyday life. For others, it is the slow march to distraction or addiction.
The ability to MT has stuck around in our gene pool for millions of years because sometimes it is the best approach to a challenge. If the Homo erectus wasn’t capable of picking berries AND watching out for dinosaurs, all of us likely wouldn’t be around (history modified to make a point).
If you are looking for more contemporary examples of the benefits of MT, consider asking 10 attractive people at The Club to watch Netflix and chill, and compare those results with asking just 1.
Don’t hate the player, hate the statistics.
I wrote this article to clear up a few things around this whole MT controversy. Now, I am not the CEO of a start up, so please take my medical and scientific opinion with a grain of salt, as I wade into areas I am intimately familiar with.
To begin with, we should agree on the definition of MT. Since I am the one typing, let’s agree that it means one thing when we refer to the brain, and a completely different thing when we refer to the mind. I am not trying to go all Descartes on you, but I think this is an important distinction to make right off the hop, and here’s why.
The brain is a super-duper-kick-ass-multitasker.
It is simultaneously doing a million tasks on the down low, completely beneath your conscious awareness. Your unconscious brain, via the hypothalamus, tells us when we are hungry and horny, while the amygdale tells us when to be afraid. The pineal gland keeps track of the position of the sun to calculate the correct amount of melatonin, so we feel yawny at sleepy time. It is no accident that we get fair warning when the bowel or bladder are ready for evacuation. The brain’s sympathetic nervous system polices the flow of blood traffic in our skin cities. It tells the secret service of your immune system when to go all 007 on an intruder AND causes you to breathe automatically. Even dolphins aren’t so lucky!
So the first myth I would like us to dispel, is the notion that the brain can’t multitask.
The second fairy tale that I would like to ruin is the one about multitasking causing permanent brain damage. In one sentence I could tell you that there is not a single dendrite of scientific evidence that has ever linked MT to brain damage, but that would be too succinct; allow me to elaborate.
Neuroplasticity has taught us that experience and thoughts entertained by the mind become biology to the brain. And while we all have about 60,000 thoughts each day, about 90% are identical to the day before. We seemingly push familiar dominos before daisies, but what we ACTUALLY think about has a direct, physical effect on the brain.
Every time we repetitively structure the thoughts in our minds in specific ways, we actually create neural connections that become new grooves in our daily vinyl. The choices we make about how we approach loved ones, our own health, as well as how we decide to digest information online, soon become familiar and then comfortable ways of doing life’s business.
Multitasking is just one tendency that we may develop among thousands or more, and it is up to ourselves to be observant about the patterns we are creating. Each choice can slowly shift us away from the best versions of ourselves, but few are ever permanent.
Let me provide some lists to illustrate my point with brackets to indicate roughly how long it would take to reverse the impact of the ‘brain damage’ in question.
Things that change the brain temporarily (seconds to hours) =BLINK
Going for a run
Watching a movie
Listening to a song
Eating Ice cream
All of the above simultaneously
Reversible but stubborn brain changes (days to years) =WARP
Habits: like chronic multitasking or biting your fingernails
Learning a musical instrument
Addictive behaviour, like compulsive eating, internet abuse, regular exercise, writing Medium posts
Trauma or Abuse
Depression/Anxiety (although evidence indicates hippocampal damage is very likely)
Things that ACTUALLY damage the brain (years to permanent) =BREAK
Direct head trauma, such as accidents due to multitasking on social media while driving or skydiving
Crystal Meth Abuse (as well as most ‘drugs’, particularly in cases where it triggers psychosis)
Alcoholism (mammillary bodies are slowly destroyed among other things)
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) related to multiple or severe concussions
Strokes (CVA’s and TIA’s are both linked to brain damage of varying degrees)
So if multitasking is not hurting my brain, what is it doing to my mind?
And that question, fellow readers and writers, is an entirely different article. As soon as I am finished writing that one, it will be hyperlinked here!
Simon Trepel, MD
Simon Trepel, MD FRCPC, is a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, in Winnipeg, Canada. He is an Assistant Professor, at the University Of Manitoba, in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Co-founder of the GDAAY Clinic. He is, more importantly, the proud Father of 2 beautiful Daughters. He writes in his spare time about things he knows something about, and occasionally about things he doesn’t; like Yoga, and Italian flavored coffees.
Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff, at