When Stanford professor Clifford Nass began noticing his students clacking away on computers during lecture and texting under the table in class discussions, his first reaction was envy. “I started out with jealousy seeing they could do all these things that I couldn’t,” he says, marveling at their ability to check Twitter, update their Facebook pages, and ostensibly pay attention in class all at once.
Fascinated, Nass decided to investigate: what was it about his students’ brains that made them so good at multitasking? The results shocked him. As it turned out, being surrounded by so much information wasn’t helping them multitask at all – in fact, it was making them worse at it. “They’re actually hurting themselves,” Nass says. “They’re actually doing worse along all cognitive dimensions one would expect, including the ability to multitask.”
Nass isn’t alone in coming to this conclusion. When author Nicholas Carr began noticing that his attention span became shorter and shorter the more he used the Internet, he, like Nass, dug into the research. The result was a frightening conclusion: as we attempt to multitask more, our brains adjust, optimizing for constant distraction. In the process, however, we also lose the ability to focus and think deeply.