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July 1, 2009 at 10:59 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Multitasking & Memory: Is There A Link?

By Smarty More Blogs by This Author

Why We Multitask

In today's hectic world, there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Because of this, many people, especially women, are combining tasks to get them done more quickly. This type of behavior, known as multitasking, includes anything from cooking dinner while listening to the news to talking on the phone while driving. Some of these activities are an easy and harmless way to save time, while others, like the talking and driving, are not (people who talk on the phone while driving are four times more likely to have an accident than those who don't). Anytime multitasking interferes with a task you need to be paying attention to, it can be detrimental.

Multitasking and Learning

Interestingly, the detrimental effects of multitasking extend to brain function. In particular, studies have shown that multitasking impairs learning and the formation of new memories. Multitasking is actually a fairly intensive process, requiring you to simultaneously remember, reason and plan. Because of this, it is almost impossible to pay adequate attention to any one thing. Attention is an important part of learning, and when attention is split because of multitasking, learning will suffer as a result. The more difficult the task you are trying to master, the more it will suffer as a result of multitasking. Even when you do learn something, information learned while multitasking is not as easy to retrieve as information learned while more focused.

Multitasking and the Brain

One study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of volunteers as they learned new information while multitasking and while completely focused. The researchers found that when the volunteers were multitasking, the brain used a completely different pathway and different brain regions to store information. Normally, the hippocampus is the most important brain region in forming new memories, and indeed, this was the brain area that became activate when the volunteers were focusing on learning. However, when they were multitasking, the hippocampus never became involved in the learning process. Instead, the area of the brain called the striatum was employed to store the information. This brain area is usually associated with learning new motoric skills such as swimming or riding a bicycle. When an area of the brain typically consigned to physical memory becomes involved in factual learning, the results are predictably poor.

How to Make Multitasking Work for You

Whenever possible, avoid multitasking. We work more quickly and efficiently, retain more information, and make fewer mistakes when we do tasks consecutively rather than all at once. However, some times the demands of life make multitasking unavoidable. When you need to multitask, pick tasks that use different areas of the brain. For example, don't read while listening to music with lyrics, since both depend on the language center of your brain. If you want background noise while studying, choose music without lyrics or white noise. Ultimately, it's better to combine tasks such as listening to music and folding laundry that are completely different. Also, try to pick one task that is routine. These tasks happen almost automatically, and so require very little conscious attention. This allows you to put more attention into whatever else you're doing at the same time. However, while multitasking can obviously have a negative impact on some things, it can actually be positive for others. For example, while you don't want to be listening to music while studying, listening to music while exercising can not only help you stay motivate and upbeat, but might actually improve muscle memory.

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