Have we always multi-tasked?
Have new technologies like mobiles, tablets and laptops turned us into multi-tasking masters? Changing our brains along the way? Or have humans
always multi-tasked and these modern toys are simply the latest thing for us to play with?
Early humans certainly would have been capable multi-taskers, says neuropsychologist Tim Hannan from the University of Western Sydney.
"Human beings have always been able to divide their attention between multiple stimuli. If they were hunting they had to work collectively and pay attention to each other as well as the prey. If another threat arose they would have needed to pay attention to that as well, and communicate information about that to other members of the group." says Hannan.
"Our brains are still basically the same as those of the early hunters", he says. "Studies of the impressions of the brain on skulls show that the size and shape of the brain is about the same as it has been for more than a hundred thousand years. From that we can presume that the cognitive system - our mechanisms of perception, paying attention and memory - have also been much the same."
So how does that 100,000 year old model brain deal with the deluge and diversity of things demanding our attention in the digital age? And how do young people develop an apparently amazing ability to listen to a lecture, text their friends, check Facebook and browse the internet for fashion bargains, all at the same time?
Dr Lea Williams from the University of Sydney's Brain Dynamics Centre studies young developing brains to see what's going on structurally as they Multi-task.
"Experiments show that in early teens the brain goes through a 'pruning' stage," Williams says. "All the connections that you reinforce, if you're learning new skills and practising them, will get strong, and the ones that you don't need actually disappear as the brain becomes more efficient at doing the things it needs to. "
Such research is in its early stages, but she says the key thing coming across so far is how adaptable the brain is. "That's the most exciting evidence, that it's very adaptable in very positive ways."
But even if the young adults of today can be shown to have differently developed brain areas that make them ever faster at multi-tasking, it's no proof yet that the human brain is structurally any different to what it was a hundred millennia ago.
"It's unlikely that there would be changes in the brain that would be evident over a number of decades," says Hannan. "Evolution works in a much slower time frame than that.". But Hannan believes that technology challenges us to draw deeper on the resources of our incredibly adaptive brain.
"Whenever in the history of human kind we've had to deal with something novel, each time that technology has delivered a change, humans have had to find ways to use their existing cognitive system to process that information and integrate it into everyday life."
Until now the biggest leap the human brain has made was in the development of language.
Williams says the demands of the digital age represent a new and exciting time for the human brain and could be leading to another big leap forward in brain development.
"Language began because people needed to be able to function in social groups, needed to find a symbolic way to express thoughts and feelings. Now we're having to function with greater social groups, different kinds of groups, and often we do it when we don't see someone, so we've got different cues, and we're looking at ways to communicate emotions when you're using text. It's a kind of revolution like the original development of language was."
While much research tends to focus on the negative side of multi-tasking, Williams says there is another way of looking at it. "We're always going to be changing and we can't go backwards as humans. We've developed this technology because we wanted to, so there's a positive in that it's connecting people up, particularly young people, in ways that previously weren't possible."
>What do you think? Have your say on our message board.