While multitasking often gets a bad rap, new research suggests concurrent integration of different types of media may help an individual perform a specific task.

The new study by graduate student Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong, Ph.D., from The Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that individuals who frequently use different types of media at the same time appear to be better at integrating information from multiple senses — sound and sight, for instance.

Investigators believe this may be due to their experience of spreading their attention to different sources of information while media multitasking.

The study is published online in Springer’s Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Recently, the detrimental aspects of multitasking have surfaced. Criticisms of this activity has focused on instant messaging, music, web surfing, e-mail, online videos, computer games or social networking.

Research has demonstrated multitasking can cause impairments during certain cognitive tasks involving task switching, selective attention and working memory, both in the laboratory and in real-life situations.

This type of cognitive impairment may be due to the fact that multitaskers tend to pay attention to various sources of information available in their environment, without sufficient focus on the information most relevant to the task at hand.

Lui and Wong’s studied the differences between media multitaskers’ tendency and ability to capture information from seemingly irrelevant sources.

In the study, they assessed how two different groups (frequent multitaskers and light multitaskers) could integrate visual and auditory information automatically.

Sixty-three participants, aged 19-28 years, took part in the experiment. Initially, they were asked to complete questionnaires determining their media usage — both time spent using various media and the extent to which they used more than one at a time.

Afterwards, participants were sent a visual search task, with and without synchronous sound, i.e. a short auditory pip, which contained no information about the visual target’s location, but indicated the instant it changed color.

On average, participants regularly received information from at least three media at the same time. Those who media multitasked the most tended to be more efficient at multisensory integration.

In other words, they performed better in the task when the tone was present than when it was absent. They also performed worse than light media multitaskers in the tasks without the tone.

Researchers believe this shows that their ability to routinely take in information from a number of different sources made it easier for them to use the unexpected auditory signal in the task with tone, leading to a large improvement in performance when tones were present.

As such, the authors conclude that although the present findings do not demonstrate a cause-effect relationship, the findings suggests that media multitasking may positively influence certain cognitive abilities including multisensory integration.

Source: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review