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Multitasking divides and lessens focus
September 5, 2017, 4:28 pm

In a world of internet and mobile phones, it is difficult for most people to be fully focused. Researchers at UCLA in the US have now studied how those distractions diminish our ability to remember.

The study team found that while divided attention does impair memory, people can still selectively focus on what is most important, even while they are multitasking.

In one experiment, the researchers showed 192 students 120 words, divided into six groups of 20 words each. Each word was visible on a computer screen for three seconds, and each was paired with a number from 1 to 10. Researchers explained to the students that they would receive scores based on the point value of each word they remembered, making the words with high point values ‘more important’ than the others.

The participants, all UCLA students, were assigned to one of four groups: One group gave the task their undivided attention.

For the second group, researchers played audio of a voice reading numbers from one to 9 while students were viewing the words and their numeric values; students were told to press the space bar on their computer keyboard every time they heard three consecutive odd numbers.

Having to juggle those two tasks proved very distracting: Each participant heard eight sequences of three odd numbers, but on average, they identified only 1.87 of the eight.

A third group of participants heard familiar pop songs while they viewed the words. And a fourth group was asked to watch the words while listening to pop songs they had not heard before.

After each set of 20 words, participants were asked to type as many of the words as they could remember. The researchers calculated a total score for each student after each set of 20 words based on the number on the screen when each word appeared.

So, if they remembered the word ‘twig’, which appeared on screen at the same time as a 10, and ‘corner’, which appeared with a 6, the participant would receive 16 points. The researchers then repeated the process for each student five more times, taking them through all 120 words.

The researchers found that the first group of participants — those who viewed the words and numbers with no distractions — recalled an average of eight words from each set of 20, while those who were distracted by having to listen for consecutive odd numbers recalled an average of just five words. Meanwhile, both groups of students, who listened to music while watching their screens, remembered the words almost as well as the group of undistracted students.

But the scientists also found that multitasking did not affect students' ability to recall the information they were told was most important — the highest value words. Participants in all four groups were nearly five times as likely to recall a 10-point word as they were to remember a one-point word.

The data are very clear in showing that with divided attention, we do not remember as much, but we are still able to focus on what is most important, said the team behind he research. They recommend that people who are studying or learning new information avoid distractions as much as possible.

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