Personal computing devices have introduced us to the phenomenon of “media multitasking".
We can constantly switch attention between e-mailing, texting, web-browsing, and listening to music, all while ostensibly working.
Research has shown that people who engage in large amounts of media multitasking perform significantly more poorly on measures of attentional ability than those who engage in it less.
In one research project T. E. Gorman et al. explored whether a brief breath-counting meditation might temporarily ameliorate the attentional deficits associated with media multitasking.
The researchers involved 1,683 participants in their research, looking most closely at a research sample of 22 heavy media multitaskers who scored at least a standard deviation above the mean, and a sample of 20 light media multitaskers who scored at least a standard deviation below the mean in frequency of media multitasking.
They completed the same assessment battery measuring attentional control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility in each of the sessions. The attentional control measures included computer-administered tasks requiring the ability to ignore distractions, detect sameness and difference in the orientation of geometrical shapes, resist impulsive responding, and attend to visual cues requiring different responses. The working memory task involved recording strings of numbers in the reverse order in which they were presented. The cognitive flexibility measure required quickly naming as many possible alternative uses of common everyday objects as one could.
The conditions under which the assessment batteries were administered differed in each of the sessions. In one of the sessions, the assessment battery was broken into tasks that were interspersed with three ten-minute breath-counting meditations. In the other session, the assessment tasks were interspersed with three ten-minute web-browsing periods.
In the breath-counting meditation, participants counted their breaths while pressing a keyboard down arrow during each exhalation. Participants pressed the right arrow key on each ninth breath, then started counting over again. They did this while viewing slow-moving animated natural stimuli. There were no instructions regarding the concept of mindfulness. In the web-browsing intervention, participants browsed various websites such as Wikipedia at will.
Heavy media multitaskers performed significantly more poorly on the attentional tasks than light media multitaskers (partial η2=.23). Both heavy and light media multitaskers did better on attentional tasks after breath-counting than after web-browsing (partial η2=.20).
Lastly, heavy media multitaskers benefited more on attentional tasks from breath-counting than did light media multitaskers (partial η2=.10). These effects applied only to the attentional measures; there were no main or interaction effects for either working memory or cognitive flexibility.
The study shows that heavy media multitaskers have an impaired attentional focus that can be either transiently remedied by periods of focused breath-counting, or transiently exacerbated by periods of web-browsing.
Gorman, T. E., & Green, C. S. (2016). Short-term mindfulness intervention reduces the negative attentional effects associated with heavy media multitasking. Scientific Reports.