This story was realeased by the UPI on August 6, 2001.

Multitasking Creates Health Problems

United Press International - August 6, 2001

ANN ARBOR, Mich., Aug 05, 2001 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A new study finds that while doing multiple tasks at once may appear to be more efficient it actually is more time consuming and in some cases poses health risks.

Researchers at the Federal Aviation Administration and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reached that conclusion by studying four groups of young adults who participated in four experiments.

They were all asked to carry out a series of tasks and switch between different tasks, some complicated, such as solving a math problem, and others easier and more familiar, such as identifying a geometric shape. A participant's performance speed was measured as the tasks were carried out.

The researchers found human capacity for multitasking has its limits. The study showed participants lost time in performance speed when switching tasks and they lost more time as the task became more complex. Familiar tasks took less time, allowing participants to get caught up to speed, so to speak.

The study is found in the August issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

"One thing to understand is that people don't probably appreciate as much as they should when it's OK to multitask and when it's not," researcher David Meyer at the University of Michigan told United Press International.

"They get tired when they're trying to multitask" and in some cases, a person could ultimately create more work for himself, he said.

When people go back and forth between activities, such as browsing the Internet to talking on a cell phone, for example, they are using areas of the brain called prefontal cortex and parietal cortex, Meyer explained. The mental processes involved in switching tasks, however, can take fractions of a second, which add up during multitasking.

These fractions of a second can become a health risk, he said, when a driver is talking on a cell phone and loses control of the vehicle.

"It's a very serious health risk and there are health risks like this pervading the environment," he said.

Other health risks of multitasking, Meyer added, include mental burnout, anxiety and depression.

Multitasking has become a workplace -- and even a household -- buzzword as e-mails, pagers, cell phones and other technological advances push mainstream culture into what critics have sometimes dubbed a 24/7 lifestyle, where people are constantly "on" 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Meyer told UPI he expects this culture to continue and that the growing interest in self-relaxation practices, such as yoga, meditation and T'ai Chi, which emphasize quieting the mind, will become even more popular as people continue trying to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Although there is little previous documented research on the psychological ramifications of persistent multi-tasking, the issue is gaining more attention, especially among behavioral scientists, health care providers and even anthropologists.

At San Jose University in San Jose, Calif., home to the ever-multitasking Silicon Valley, researchers Charles Darrah, J. A. English-Lueck and James Freeman write this constant life-on-the-go can make people feel a lack of control over their lives.

"That the pace of life is fast and is getting faster has become a truism for the new century," the researchers, of the university's Department of Anthropology, wrote last December. "Several effects combine to create the maelstrom -- the flurry of rapidly occurring activities in lives already crowded with activities; and the constant looming threat of minor catastrophe."

(Reported by Katrina Woznicki in Washington)
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.