Your Brain on Multitabling

I sometime think my brain is completely ****ed up. I can’t focus on one thing at [a] time. <div class="source">babar86</div>  

I haven’t read a book in years, I can only read articles. […] I’m distracted basically instantly and have no short term memory. <div class="source">jimmyvjv13</div>  

I was told [by my doctor] that if I choose to play online poker as a full time career, I will likely die of a stroke before the age of 50. <div class="source">Dusty “Leatherass9” Schmidt</div>

You might be wondering what’s wrong with these people. Do they have ADHD? Alzheimers? Some obscure degenerative disease? In fact, what they have in common is that they’re online multitabling regulars, and their stories provide a chilling glimpse into the murky horizon that awaits many poker players.


How common are these stories? I first started hearing accounts of it when I was a poker player. I’d even experienced some of it myself. When Pokerstars raised the multitabling limits back in 2007, 12-tabling 6-max games quickly became my bread-and-butter. Before long, playing just four tables would bore me; I didn’t have the patience for it. After enough time, reading a book or sitting through a two hour documentary seemed like an ordeal. I’d browse Youtube videos while chatting on Skype and reading poker forums. My brain was continually being fed high-octane stimuli, and when it wasn’t, I had trouble focusing.

After quitting poker three years ago, a lot of that had gone away. I’d largely forgotten about it. But when I saw a few threads on TwoPlusTwo with people sharing their stories, it sent me down a rabbit hole of investigation.

Your Brain on Multitabling

It’s impossible to know exactly what poker does to the brain. Poker as it’s being played now, multitabled for 500+ hands per hour, is a new and strange phenomenon. There’s really never been anything like it. It’s been around for less than ten years—too recent for us to observe its long-term effects. And the scientists who study online gambling are more interested in its effects on addicts and laypeople than its effects on professionals.

We have some anecdotes, but anecdotes don’t tell us enough. We don’t have a clear picture of what percentage of multitablers this happens to. We assume that online poker is the cause of this, but the causation could be more complex than that. We don’t know if these people are simply predisposed toward attentional problems, and perhaps that’s what caused them to became multitablers in the first place. Or their problems might be caused by some third independent factor, such as Internet addiction. There are too many confounding variables, so we have to get at the question another way.

The Price of Multitasking

Picture a 24-tabling regular, staring at two 30” monitors peppered with MTTs and sit-and-gos. Decisions pop in front of him and then recede into the background with frenetic speed. He’s mentally jumping again and again into different situations, clicking rapidly from game to game.

By constantly switching his mental context, he incurs what neuroscientists call switching costs. “Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources,” writes Nicholas Carr. “Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load.”

Through switching costs, multitasking almost always decreases our efficiency at any given task. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But what about for someone who’s multitasking day-in and day-out? If you’re always multitasking, does that make you more efficient at it? An infamous 2009 Stanford study looked at exactly this.

The study compared heavy technology multitaskers against light multitaskers. They expected the multitaskers to outperform the non-multitaskers, but what they found was the exact opposite. The heavy multitaskers were less able to ignore distractions, had worse focus, short-term memory, and were poorer at context switching. According to one of the researchers, the heavy multitaskers were “suckers for irrelevancy.” “Everything distracts them.” Notably, these symptoms are similar to what we observed in chronic multitablers.

Usually, the brain adapts to become better at commonly repeated tasks or stimuli. But it seems in this case, the brain’s response is maladaptive. Constant multitasking made people’s brains worse at it. Why?

The Perils of Overstimulation

Perhaps the high rate of information processing puts so much load on the brain that it weakens other faculties, such as working memory or attention control. It’s not implausible. Studies have shown that overstimulation leads to significant impairments in cognitive function for mice. Maybe this is something similar—perhaps poker players are getting overstimulated, and it’s affecting their brainpower.

But on the other hand, there are reasons to believe that some multitasking has positive effects on the brain. Studies have shown that complex computer tasks like Internet browsing are powerful mental exercise, and have positive effects on patients with cognitive decline. One study even introduced non-gamers to Starcraft, the real-time strategy game, and found a significant boost in their cognitive flexibility after a few months. These studies seem to indicate that some amount of multitasking is valuable mental stimulation. So when does brain training become brain overload?

It’s hard to say. What’s clear is that these multitablers have crossed the threshold into unhealthy multitasking. And chances are, that’s not the sole cause of their cognitive impairment. Internet addiction similarly causes impairment of executive control and irritability. According to one study by the University of Melbourne, about 10% of students have Internet addiction. Judging from the accounts given by multitablers, it’s likely that massive multitabling and Internet addiction are occuring together and are mutually reinforcing.

A Trigger-happy Brain

But perhaps the “overstimulation” model doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, it’s hard to believe that the brain isn’t able to adapt positively to multitasking when it’s able to adapt to almost everything else. What if we assume that the brain is adapting positively, but only within a narrow band of behavior? After all, people clearly get better at multitabling over time. The progression is well-known: you have to 9-table before you can 12-table before you can 16-table.

Perhaps the problem is that the multitabler has trained his brain for constant, hair-trigger context switches. By spending so much time in the trenches of multitabling, his brain has become trigger-happy when it comes to switching. This causes many automatic, unwanted context switches. And what’s another word for an unwanted context switch? Distraction, of course. In that case, it’s no wonder that massive multitablers can’t focus. They spend all their time adapting their brain to constant switching, so even if they try to slow down and focus, their brain is still primed to switch at a moment’s notice.

Perhaps this best explains these effects on the brain. Or perhaps both this trigger-readiness and overstimulation are to blame. Or perhaps it’s something else altogether. So far, we don’t know. But either way, it’s hard to question that massive multitabling is harmful to our brains.

Dusty “Leatherass9” Schmidt concluded in his infamous blog post that quitting poker was the only option left to him. But that doesn’t mean that all multitablers need take such drastic steps. In fact, a lot of research suggests that there are some ways to buffer against these ailments. In part 2 of this article I’ll explore what you can do to inoculate yourself and multitable sustainably—if I ever write it (I suck, I know).

Until then,

August 28 2014
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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