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Research at UCLA, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) and reported in the Washington Post:
Russell Poldrack and his colleagues assigned 14 people in thier 20’s to an exercise that involved learning how to sort shapes of various sizes into different piles, based on trial and error. They performed the task under two different conditions, first without any distractions and then listening to high and low beeps and counting the high beeps only.
They were tested on what they learned in each situation.
Using functional MRIs, the researchers evaluated the participants’ brain activity and function under each condition.
Said Poldrack, “Our results told us that people can learn under either condition, but the way they learned [material] and the brain systems involved were different. For the task performed while multi-tasking, the subjects’ knowledge was less flexible, meaning they could not extrapolate their knowledge to different contexts.”
There was also a difference in the brain systems and types of memory activated under the seaparate conditions.
From the article: The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in sorting, processing and recalling information, is critical for declarative memory (things you can learn from text). While performing the sorting task without multi-tasking, the hippocampus was active. The distractive beeps, however, shifted activity away from the hippocampus to the striatum, which is necessary for procedural memory (that is, habitual tasks, like riding a bike).
Memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in different situations…whereas those stored in the striatum are tied closely to the specific situation in which they were learned. “This means that learning with the striatum leads to knowledge that cannot be generalized as well in new situations.”
“The bottom line is that active distractions involved in multi-tasking are going to reduce one’s ability to learn,” he said — even if standard performance measures, like grades, show otherwise.
In the article, another expert, Dr David E Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said the results confirmed what had been suspected. “With multi-tasking, you’re getting — at best — a superficial understanding of the studied material… You read at various depths of understanding. You can get the bare minimum, or, if you read carefully, you can also make inferences about the work.”
Meyer says that students who learn with distractions are causing their brains to “wing it”, by using a region that isn’t best suited for long-term memory and understanding.
His own work has established that multi-tasking takes more time and involves more error.
For the record, however, Poldrack admits that these were active distractions. Listening to music may be a passive distraction for some people. One neuropsychologist, William Stixrud in Silver Spring, Maryland, suggests that there is no fixed rule about music, and for some students background music may function like white noise, drowning out distractors.
He even suggests that for children with attention deficit disorder, who are constantly seeking stimulation, the steady background music may help them concentrate on their studies.
But he discourages active distractions such as TV, IMing, phone calls and other “constantly changing” media. They divide the mind, and interrupt studying. [Source: Washington Post Article by Jeffrey Ghassemi www.washingtonpost.com ]
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