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Healthy Living: Too Much to Do

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Multitaskers have made many people sick with envy or disdain over the years with their spit-shine efficiency.

Now, some researchers are saying that multitaskers are making themselves sick, too.

David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is one of many researchers building on studies that have shown that multitasking takes its toll not only on the tasks but on the health of the taskers, too.

Multitasking not only lowers efficiency and creates errors in the tasks performed, but it also compromises memory, causes back pain, can give people the flu and indigestion, and even hurts teeth and gums, recent studies show.

As the holiday season approaches and people try to cram more activities into already tight schedules, it's important to slow down and try to uni-task, researchers said.

"The body releases hormones to cope with extra-challenging task situations," Meyer explained. "If it goes on very long --- like for air traffic controllers, traders in a Wall Street pit or single mothers --- it leads to brain rot."

The reality, of course, is that most people in today's world are multitaskers, even if not at the level of an air traffic controller. Even those who eschew cellphones or other electronic gadgetry are challenged by the demands of modern life, not to mention modern jobs.

"I don't think I could be a high school principal if I didn't multitask," said Cheryl Finke, principal of Chamblee Charter High School. "There's always somebody, something coming at you. That's part of the job."

It's part of most people's jobs, from drink makers at popular coffee shops who have 20 people waiting in line for lattes and cappuccinos to doctors who have a waiting room full of patients. And even if people do not have to multitask at the job, chances are they will be multitasking at home with children or other loved ones and volunteer commitments at school or place of worship.

Even monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers said that they multitask sometimes, as demands of the large farm have spread to fewer men.

"Strictly speaking, we don't do a lot of it because you need some conveyances to do that," said the Rev. Francis Michael, the superior of the monastery. "But I do talk on the phone and clean off my desk at the same time."

He was surprised to hear that many people talk on the phone and drive at the same time.

While the monks and other spiritually directed people understand the spiritual drawbacks of spreading ourselves too thin, doctors and other researchers are only just beginning to study the long-term medical consequences of such a lifestyle. So far, they are seeing that the side effects are not good.

Studies conducted two years ago by the National Institutes of Health showed that different parts of the brain are activated during certain tasks. For instance, when people are presented with a visual task, neurons in the visual cortex part of the brain are working, said Emory University neurologist Dr. John Sladky. When people pay attention to auditory stimuli, neurons in another part of the brain begin to work.

But when people try to do both --- such as drive and talk on a cellphone --- metabolic activity in both parts of the brain goes down.

"The brain actually begins to shut down," Sladky said. "The brain not only can't do it; it refuses to do it."

Poor task completion and lowered efficiency result, Sladky said.

Some of the studies have been cited in legislation to curb driving while talking on a cellphone, and those who study driving safety have expanded on some of the NIH studies. Strain on brain

Dr. Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, found that it is especially hard for people to perform two language tasks at once --- that is, listen to two conversations at one time. Just found that brain activity generated by listening to sentences decreased 53 percent if the person also tried to perform a visual task.

"Not everybody does well at multitasking," Just said. "It's just hard. There are only so many brain resources to go around."

Other factors do influence task efficiency, Just said. First, some people's brains are better suited to performing several tasks than others, Just said. Also, the more automatic a task becomes, the easier the brain can do something else at once. Thus, an experienced driver can function better in distracting traffic than a novice teen, he said.

Meyer and others have been focusing less on the public health risks and more on the personal health risks, which they describe as potentially considerable.

Part of the reason is that the brain and the body were not designed to handle a wide array of tasks at once.

When the brain becomes stressed from overload, other parts of the body release stress hormones, like adrenaline.

The hormones, however, are not supposed to flow freely or regularly.

"They were designed for the herbivore in Africa, trying to survive," Sladky said.

A one-shot output of the hormones, in fact, can help an animal escape a predator's claws. But a prolonged release of the flight-or-fight hormones will take a physical toll on a body.

"For so many of us, we're chronically under stress," Sladky said. "That stress activator has been mutated from a very brief response to a chronic one."

The results also include sleep loss and depression and anxiety.

"It's really a vicious circle," said Meyer. "You get exposed to these excessive challenges, that stresses you out; you get depressed, your productivity declines, that stresses you out; you get more depressed."

Sladky said researchers may not yet know the full extent of the damage of multitasking.

"I think it is pretty clear that behavior that results in stress will result in a whole range of 21st century diseases," Sladky said. 'Extra cost involved'

There's no sign of the multitasking trend abating, however. The current business conditions provide the perfect environment. Employers, with pressure for better bottom lines, ask workers to do more. In turn, workers, afraid of layoffs, will try to rise to meet the challenge.

Electronic advances such as cellphones and laptops contribute to brain overuse, too. And many people enjoy multitasking and boasting about it.

"Some people do like multitasking and are pretty macho about it," Meyer said. "It's like the old Marlboro Man."

Acceptance may be a first step of the solution, researchers said. People need to know that the brain cannot do all that humans are asking it to do.

"When a person tries to multitask, there's an extra cost involved in each mental shift," Meyer said. "As a result, productivity goes down, and the rate at which you do the task goes down."

Alas, the researchers said, the multitasking is likely to continue until people commit to slowing down.

The monks, at least, said the benefits are worth it physically and spiritually.

"Some of the most powerful moments are when we stop doing that and are just here and now," said the Rev. Francis Michael. "In a sense, that's precious."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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