Memo To My Teenage Son: Multitasking Isn’t Learning!

It’s actually pretty safe to say my son doesn’t read my blog.  Most of what I write about is incredibly boring, according to him:  Politics, PR, baseball, science…yawn!  So I might have to pay him to read this:

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.”

Shouldn’t that be obvious? 

I’ll tell you something else:  If you want to know why business and government are making so many bad decisions nowadays, you can blame the same thing — this absurd faith high-level people have in their own ability to multi-task.  Writing an e-mail, while having a meeting, while reading a report, while monitoring a conference call…this is how busy executives feel important.  They even multi-task while they’re on vacation!  Because, my God, if that phone ever stopped ringing, if those e-mails stopped flying over the transom, you might cease to exist!

But back to my son, who tries to tell me he’s doing work when, in fact, five Instant Message windows are open and actual dialogues are taking place; and he’s playing music; and talking on the phone.  Here is a snapshot of his brain:

Different forms of memory are processed by separate systems in the brain…. When you recall what you did last weekend or try to remember someone’s name or your driver’s license number, you are using a type of memory retrieval called declarative memory. (Patients with Alzheimer disease have damage in these brain areas.) When you remember how to ride a bicycle or how to play tennis, you are using what is called procedural memory; this requires a different set of brain areas than those used for learning facts and concepts, which rely on the declarative memory system. The beeps in the study disrupted declarative memory, said Poldrack, who also studies how the types of memory are related.

The brain’s hippocampus — a sea-horse-shaped structure that plays critical roles in processing, storing and recalling information — is necessary for declarative memory, Poldrack said. For the task learned without distraction, the hippocampus was involved. However, for the task learned with the distraction of the beeps, the hippocampus was not involved; but the striatum was, which is the brain system that underlies our ability to learn new skills.

The striatum is the brain system damaged in patients with Parkinson disease, Poldrack noted. Patients with Parkinson’s have trouble learning new motor skills but do not have trouble remembering the past.

“We have shown that multi-tasking makes it more likely you will rely on the striatum to learn,” Poldrack said. “Our study indicates that multi-tasking changes the way people learn.”

The researchers noted that they are not saying never to multi-task, just don’t multi-task while you are trying to learn something new that you hope to remember.  (emphasis mine)

Because, dude, this is so on the test!


4 thoughts on “Memo To My Teenage Son: Multitasking Isn’t Learning!

  1. Chronic multitaskers amaze me: how do they ever get anything done? I’m one of those people who actually has to concentrate on what I’m doing — especially if I’m studying or whatever. I could never understand how people are able to study for big tests with the radio or TV on in the background. I needed complete silence in order to study!

  2. I have had ADD (but not ADHD) for as long as I can remember — I managed to get a B.S. and M.A. from two of the top universities in the country, but my experiences thus far in the real world have made me question my market value. I work in PR. At an agency. I jump on demand. I have never been able to be 100% productive when multitasking and switching tasks at the drop of a hat. I know this isn’t the right position for me, but I know I am looked at by my manager as “the bastard stepchild of PR,” but I am useful because I actually understand the topics our client works on. My career there is on the outs (either my decision or theirs, its only a matter of time) – my fear is that they won’t provide a good reference down the road because they look at me as inefficient. In an agency / distraction-heavy environment. I don’t know if I have a question or am just posting out of frustration. Nonetheless, I thank you if you have read this far on my belated post.

  3. That Guy,

    Take it from me. Figure out what someone with your talents and liabilities should be doing, and focus like a laser beam on getting that particular niche. PR is actually a fine job for ADD types, depending on what kind of PR you’re doing. Crisis management: Good. Brand management: Bad. Become a specialist in short-term projects that take advantage of your wide knowledge scope and “quick-learner” skills. Avoid anything where you’re spending month after month implementing a strategy, even if it’s your own, because you’re at your very worst when you’re bored.

    If people made career choices based on who they are rather than what they want, there would be a lot fewer unhappy people with messed-up careers.

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