Mental Fragmentation

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Mental fragmentation is a phrase used to describe the mental state of someone who has memories written into their brain from multiple sources over time, especially those who are heavy multitaskers. When multitasking, the brain does not store related memories in one place, but in small pieces. This causes performance and recall to suffer. One can easily see this when installing software while leaving other programs running, or downloading a bunch of images and storing them in different places all over the hard drive. The computer’s memory gets fragmented, much like a brain becomes fragmented. Mental hygiene becomes difficult, but important, in environments like these. Simultaneous time also causes social punctuation, as technosocial connectivity seeps into every part of social relations. In addition, memories written to the brain during these data binges are generally forgotten during REM sleep and not written to permanent or embodied memory. Conversely, one who spends physical time in the practice of study or experience of a subject will be more likely to write it into physical memory.

Thomas Eriksen wrote that “...the surplus of information has a powerful democratizing effect since it makes it impossible for the State or self-appointed elites to dictate which knowledge each of us should appropriate; at the same time, it has – for the exact same reason – fragmenting effects. A new scarce resource is coherence.”[1] Thus, “whoever is able to filter and sort the information at his or her disposal, and is thereby able to discard ninety-nine per cent as irrelevant, wins this game – not whoever is able to remember the names of Russian rivers or African heads of state”. [2]

Multitasking leaves unfinished business

Alex Roth Opinions columnist Posted: January 25th, 2011 - 5:52 PM

The chances of you reading this entire article are slim to none. You’ll receive a text, check your e-mail or divert your attention back to the show you were watching.

“Here! Here! RT @reader: What to read, what to read ...”

Multitasking leaves unfinished business


"No Vacations

For spring break, the family rented a cottage in Carmel, Calif. Mrs. Campbell hoped everyone would unplug.

"But the day before they left, the iPad from Apple came out, and Mr. Campbell snapped one up. The next night, their first on vacation, “We didn’t go out to dinner,” Mrs. Campbell mourned. “We just sat there on our devices.” Multimedia

Interactive Feature A Multitasker's Perspective

Interactive Feature Test Your Focus

Slide Show Juggling the Screens

Graphic Warning Signs of Technology Overload Related

An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness (June 7, 2010) Your Brain on Computers: More Americans Sense a Downside to an Always Plugged-In Existence (June 7, 2010) Readers' Comments Matt Richtel will answer questions from readers. If you have a question for Mr. Richtel please post it in the comments section of this article. Post a Comment » She rallied the troops the next day to the aquarium. Her husband joined them for a bit but then begged out to do e-mail on his phone.

Later she found him playing video games.

The trip came as Mr. Campbell was trying to raise several million dollars for his new venture, a goal that he achieved. Brenda said she understood that his pursuit required intensity but was less understanding of the accompanying surge in video game.

His behavior brought about a discussion between them. Mrs. Campbell said he told her that he was capable of logging off, citing a trip to Hawaii several years ago that they called their second honeymoon.

“What trip are you thinking about?” she said she asked him. She recalled that he had spent two hours a day online in the hotel’s business center.

On Thursday, their fourth day in Carmel, Mr. Campbell spent the day at the beach with his family. They flew a kite and played whiffle ball.

Connor unplugged too. “It changes the mood of everything when everybody is present,” Mrs. Campbell said.

The next day, the family drove home, and Mr. Campbell disappeared into his office.

Technology use is growing for Mrs. Campbell as well. She divides her time between keeping the books of her husband’s company, homemaking and working at the school library. She checks e-mail 25 times a day, sends texts and uses Facebook.

Recently, she was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

She feels less focused and has trouble completing projects. Some days, she promises herself she will ignore her device. “It’s like a diet — you have good intentions in the morning and then you’re like, ‘There went that,’ ” she said.

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”

That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

Related Reading


  1. Ibid.
  2. Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Obsessive Egalitarianism to Pluralist Universalism?
 Options for Twenty-First Century Education. 
Keynote speech, NERA conference, University of Oslo and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
t, Oslo, 10 Mar. 2005.