Is multitasking affecting your memory? Distraction isn’t as simple as you’d think

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Memory is impacted when attentions are divided, however, even while multitasking, people are still able to focus in on important details, according to a recent study undertaken by University of California (UCLA) researchers.

The study, led by University of California Los Angeles professor of psychology Alan Castel and UCLA graduate student Catherine Middlebrooks, involved testing the memory skills of participants  under a range of conditions, with results suggesting implications for our ability to selectively focus.

In one experiment, 192 students were shown 120 words divided into six sets of 20, with each word visible on a computer screen for three seconds and paired with a number from one to 10.

The students received scores based on the point value of each word remembered, with greater importance placed on remembering words paired with higher numbers.

After each set of words, the students were asked to type as many words as they could remember, with a total score then calculated.

The participants were assigned to four groups: one group gave the task their undivided attention, the second group listened to audio of a voice reading numbers from one to nine and were told to press their computer’s space bar every time they heard three consecutive odd numbers, the third group listened to familiar pop songs and the fourth group listened to pop songs they hadn’t heard before.

The first, undistracted, group recalled an average of eight words from each set, while the second group recorded just five.

Both groups that listened to music remembered the words almost as well as the un-distracted group.

However, when it came to the most important value words, participants in all four groups were nearly five times more likely to recall a 10-point word than a one-point word, indicating multitasking did not impact the capacity to retain important information.

“Everybody consistently prioritised the high-value words and shifted their attention towards those,” Middlebrooks says. “They all came to the realisation that they needed to remember what is the most valuable, even though some were distracted and some weren’t.”

A second experiment with 96 other students saw each participant shown six sets of 20 words with a value of one to 10.

The participants were again divided into four groups with one group viewing the words without any distractions, while the other three groups were played a series of tones.

One group was told to identify whether each tone was the same as the previous one, another was askedindicate whether two consecutive tones were the same pitch or not and another told to identify each sound as high or low-pitched.

The results echoed those of the first experiment, with participants more likely to recall important, high-value words, while across the experiments and groups, participants’ ability to remember improved as the tests progressed from the first to the last set of words.

The results give evidence that while it’s advisable to have as few distractions as possible when learning something new, however, even when disturbed, it is likely that the important information will stick.

“All is likely not lost if you’re occasionally interrupted by a text or if someone nearby turns on music while you’re studying,” Middlebrooks says. “Our world is filled with tantalising distractions, and we seem to adapt by being selectively focused.”

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