Brain and Body

Overwhelmed by Media? This Simple Action Helps Regain Focus

April 25, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Multitasking in the park
Photo credit: David Goehring/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests the more media we juggle, the more harm we do to our ability to pay attention, but the remedy might be a simple meditative exercise.

Media-multitaskers — those that like to study, surf the internet, and listen to music all at the same time, for example — might want to pay attention to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the negative side effects of juggling too much media.

According to the university, studies have shown that people who take in multiple overlapping media sources can be distracted not only in the moment, but overall, which can impact academic performance and relationships.

"Most of us who study media multitasking think that monitoring lots of sources constantly — instead of devoting yourself to one thing — induces a more distributed attentional state," C. Shawn Green, a psychology professor at the university and senior author of the study, said in a press release.

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"Many people have had the experience where they've felt a phantom phone ring or vibration in their pocket. That means part of your attention is actively monitoring your leg, even while you're trying to do other things," he said.

But Green and study co-author Thomas Gorman have found that a simple meditative exercise can significantly increase people’s ability to pay attention, particularly among users who frequently juggles various sources of media.

Building off of previous University of Wisconsin-Madison research showing that counting breaths (nine exhales and inhales) has a number of benefits, Green and Gorman tested the technique among heavy- and light-media users.

According to the university, study participants — comprised of people who reported frequent media multitasking and those who rarely combine media — spent parts of two days taking standard tests that measure their attention. One day, the attention tests were interspersed with web browsing, and on the other, each test was preceded by 10 minutes of the breath-counting exercise.

The results showed heavy media multitaskers scored worse than light-media multitaskers all around and both groups posted better attention scores right after counting breaths. However, heavy-media multitaskers made the greatest improvements after the breathing exercise.

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"We thought this mindfulness task might be particularly useful to media multitaskers because it is, conceptually, somewhat the opposite of media multitasking," said Green. "It's deep focus on a single thing, and that single thing is not actually very demanding of your attention."

While the boost in attention did not last for more than a day, Green suggests the study shows that those with distracted minds due to frequent media multitasking can regain, and perhaps retrain, their attention-span.

According to Gorman, minds are bound to wander during the exercise and, as such, it requires active practice in adjusting and refocusing attention.

"No one can stay focused on it indefinitely," he said. "When you notice your attention slipping away, you bring it back over and over. You're practicing that skill, refocusing your attention."

The study, “Short-term mindfulness intervention reduces the negative attentional effects associated with heavy media multitasking” was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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