Stop trying to multitask if you want better memory

Stanford study links ‘flitting between digital media’ to memory failures

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“Ability to multitask” used to be something you would put on your resumé. During the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, it became a necessity. A new study, however, suggests we need to stop.

“As we navigate our lives, we have these periods in which we’re frustrated because we’re not able to bring knowledge to mind, expressing what we know,” said Anthony Wagner, the Lucie Stern professor in the social sciences in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “Fortunately, science now has tools that allow us to explain why an individual, from moment to moment, might fail to remember something stored in their memory.”

In addition to investigating why people sometimes remember and other times forget, the team of scientists also wanted to understand why some of us seem to have better memory recall than others, and how media multitasking might be a factor, Lara Streiff wrote for Stanford News.

"The research … begins to answer these fundamental questions, which may have implications for memory conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and could lead to applications for improving peoples' attention — and thereby memory — in daily life, Streiff wrote.

For their study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the Stanford researchers monitored 80 test subjects ages 18-26, measuring their pupil dilation and brain activity — specifically, the brain waves referred to as posterior alpha power — while performing tasks.

“Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” said study lead author Kevin Madore, a postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab. “We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter — in particular before you do different tasks — are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”

The research team measured differences in the participants' ability to sustain attention by studying how well subjects were able to identify a gradual change in an image. The subjects' media multitasking ability was assessed by having them report how well they could engage with multiple media sources, like texting and watching television, within a given hour.

The scientists then compared memory performance among the individuals and found those with lower sustained attention ability and heavier media multitaskers both performed worse on memory tasks.

Wagner and Madore emphasize their work demonstrates a correlation, not causation. “We can’t say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures,” Streiff quoted Madore as saying. “though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions.”

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