July 25, 2006
Distractions Reduce Learning

You learn less when you have to juggle more distractions.

Multi-tasking affects the brain's learning systems, and as a result, we do not learn as well when we are distracted, UCLA psychologists report this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems.

"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," Poldrack added. "Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention."

You'll remember less about how you did a task if you had to do another task at the same time.

Participants in the study, who were in their 20s, learned a simple classification task by trial-and-error. They were asked to make predictions after receiving a set of cues concerning cards that displayed various shapes, and divided the cards into two categories. With one set of cards, they learned without any distractions. With a second set of cards, they performed a simultaneous task: listening to high and low beeps through headphones and keeping a mental count of the high-pitch beeps. While the distraction of the beeps did not reduce the accuracy of the predictions - people could learn the task either way - it did reduce the participants' subsequent knowledge about the task during a follow-up session.

When the subjects were asked questions about the cards afterward, they did much better on the task they learned without the distraction. On the task they learned with the distraction, they could not extrapolate; in scientific terms, their knowledge was much less "flexible."

This result demonstrates a reduced capacity to recall memories when placed in a different context, Poldrack said.

If you have only one task to focus on your can notice more patterns and look at it in more ways while you are doing it. You can basically sift through and make more sense of it. That lets you use the experience of that task in more ways.

It is a continual source of amazement to me just how distracting office workplaces are. This report is yet another argument against the rows of cubicles with all the noise and distractionn the lack of walls brings.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 July 25 10:34 PM  Brain Performance


Comments
rsilvetz said at July 26, 2006 9:45 AM:

Two comments:

1) Having shared a room with two siblings you can learn to completely ignore everything not directed at you. Certainly not optimal, but it works.

2) "It is a continual source of amazement to me just how distracting office workplaces are." But workplaces are social environments for a social animal. A third of life is spent there. If we weren't territorial we wouldn't even have the cubicles! We work to live, not the other way around.

auntulna said at July 27, 2006 7:35 AM:

Oh the arguments we have had! Me and my 18 year old son, that is. All through high school he insisted on doing homework at his computer, listening to music and fielding instant messages. I'm pretty old, but I didn't think humans had evolved to the point that all this could be done well. This report affirms what I already "knew". College will bring more distractions; I hope he sees the inside of a library!

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