Researchers link poor memory to media multitasking

November 1, 2020

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Researchers link poor memory to media multitasking

The eyes may or may not be “windows to the soul,” but they can provide insightful glimpses into memory. Scientists are now able to predict whether an individual will remember or forget based on their neural activity and pupil size.

What the researchers say: “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 the lead author. “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.

The research, published in the journal Nature, 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.

To monitor attention lapses in relation to memory, 80 study subjects between the ages of 18 to 26 had their pupils measured and their brain activity monitored via an electroencephalogram (EEG)—specifically, the brain waves referred to as posterior alpha power—while performing tasks like recalling or identifying changes to previously studied items.

“Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” the researchers said. “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.”

Differences in people’s ability to sustain attention were also measured by studying how well subjects were able to identify a gradual change in an image, while media multitasking was assessed by having individuals 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 between individuals and found that those with lower sustained attention ability and heavier media multitaskers both performed worse on memory tasks.

Gosh! What a surprise!

One direction of related recent research has been a focus on what happens before learning or, as in this case, before remembering even occurs. That’s because memory heavily depends on goal-directed cognition—we essentially need to be ready to remember, have attention engaged and a memory goal in mind—in order to retrieve our memories.

“While it’s logical that attention is important for learning and for remembering, an important point here is that the things that happen even before you begin remembering are going to affect whether or not you can actually reactivate a memory that is relevant to your current goal,” the lead researcher said.

Some of the factors that influence memory preparedness are already within our control, he added, and can therefore be harnessed to assist recall. For example, conscious awareness of attentiveness, readiness to remember and limiting potential distractions allow individuals to alter their surroundings to improve their memory performance.

So, what? A ton of earlier research has shown that humans are really bad at multitasking (though women are slightly better at it than men) and that people trying to do two things at once usually do both badly. This research deepens these earlier studies and makes a direct link with media use—which will become more of a problem with Zoom (and suchlike) meetings.

The link with alpha waves is interesting, because a very recent study showed that lower frequency of their emission is associated with major depression. It may be that people prone to depression are also prone to multitasking in order to prevent the worst of the mood disorder.

This may also be a reason why depression makes it harder to meditate, because meditation also reduces the frequency of the alpha signals.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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