Today, Hayley McCrea of Portland, Oregon asks the scientists:
Hayley McCrea: Will the younger generation have an easier time multitasking than the older generation? More specifically, is the brain going to be wired differently for the younger generation than the older generation?
EarthSky asked Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, and an expert on the subject of multitasking.
Earl Miller: Well, the short answer to that question is yes, In many ways ,the brain is constantly wiring and rewiring itself in response to experience. And if you have a lot of experience multitasking, that means your brain is going to get wired a little more towards multitasking than somebody who is not used to it.
Miller said that today, young people are surrounded by media and technology that demand their attention. For example, a teenager might be doing her homework, while also watching TV, texting her friends, and checking her Facebook page on the computer. But, Miller said, she is not actually doing all these things simultaneously.
Earl Miller: In actuality, people can only think about two, three, or maybe four cognitively demanding thoughts at one time. What’s actually going on is your brain is switching back and forth between the different tasks.
So, Miller said, while there’s no such thing as true multitasking, the younger generation will be better at switching focus from one task to another. Miller said the challenge with multitasking – or switching between different thoughts and tasks – is that you lose focus on what you’re doing, and the quality of your work may decrease if you’re trying to do too many things at once.
Earl Miller: For a very short period of time, you are slower and less accurate at processing new information. But with practice you can get better at that. When we say you are getting better at some cognitive skill, what you are literally doing is rewiring your brain. That’s what your brain does in response to experience. The pathways you use get stronger, the ones you don’t use get weakened, new pathways get formed. So kids these days will get better at rapidly switching at apparently multitasking than adults who have less experience with that.
He said that even though an older generation may adapt to an environment filled with cellphones, texting, 24-hour news networks, and the Internet, the younger generation is better equipped to navigate it.
Earl Miller: A younger person grew up in an environment where there was lots of things demanding attention, and they got used to switching and dividing their attention among different things. Your brain is most plastic – by plastic, I mean malleable. Your brain changes the most in response to experience when you are young versus when you are old. When you are old, your brain still changes in response to experience – that’s how we form memories – but the real bulk of programming in your brain takes place when you are young, in so-called critical periods where your brain is most plastic.
During that time, Miller said, your brain works at deciding which neural pathways are valuable, and which can be discarded or weakened. That’s how your brain gets wired at an early age. But the most important part of the brain for multitasking gets developed through adolescence, Miller said.
Earl Miller: Some parts of the brain don’t develop until you’re a late teenager, like the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that’s above your eyes and behind forehead. It’s the most human, most intelligent part of your brain. It’s the brain’s executive. That part of the brain doesn’t develop fully until you’re 18, 19, 20 years old.
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Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.