Multitasking interferes with focus, and that in turn disrupts learning. In a recent test of multitasking, a group of 29 people (ages 17 to 30) was trained to discriminate two sound pips that differed in length by a fraction of a second. In one group of subjects, the training occurred consecutively, which ordinarily produces some inefficiency with learning because the second task interferes with remembering the first. But no learning occurred in another group of subjects when training of the two tasks was interleaved in multitask fashion.
In another recent study, Stanford University students were divided into those who were heavy multitaskers and those who multitasked only infrequently. A series of thinking tests checked for any difference in the way the two types of people processed information and disciplined their attentiveness. Heavy multitaskers were less able to sustain focus in the presence of distractions, and they performed worse, even though their experience and presumed skill at multitasking should have made them more effective.
Attention Determines the Registration of Stimuli
Paying attention also affects how well a stimulus is encoded. For example, responses of neurons in a monkey’s visual cortex to a visual flash are greater when the subject attends the stimulus than when not paying attention.
Stimuli That Trigger Emotions Grab Your Attention
Rather than consciously focusing our attention, most of us, especially adolescents, usually allow our attention to drift until something grabs it. Stimuli that are strong, especially meaningful, or have emotional associations are most effective at seizing our attention. When we let that happen, our environment controls our behavior rather than our conscious mind and will. Exerting will is called “executive function,” and this function has to be learned.
If we are continually distracted and shifting attention from one thing to another, we are training our brains to be scatterbrained. But if we practice concentrating through force of will, we create a habit of attentiveness. I offer some ways to help students do this.
- Recognize how important attentiveness is. Your reality is constructed from what you attend.
- Live in the now. Grab the present intensely. You cannot know the future, and you cannot re-do the past.
- Think in terms of targets for attentiveness, and take mental aim at them. Targets should be interesting or have a clear value. If these attributes are not apparent, you must consciously enable them.
- Make tough choices about what to attend. Attending orders, but limits, your experience. Attend to those things that best serve your own interests.
- Develop an eye for detail. See the forest, but also see the trees (and the leaves, bark, insects, birds, squirrels, and everything else).
- Shut out distractions. Stay on target.
- Set goals, and keep track of them and how you are achieving them.
- Change the pace of your attention. Don’t let practice become a drill. Enliven dull work by thinking of it in novel ways.
- Don’t multitask. This is the archenemy of attentiveness and profoundly interferes with the ability to learn and especially to remember. Multitasking trains you to be distractible.
- Be more self-aware. Pay attention to what you are doing, why, and how.
- Develop a passion for what you experience. Both negative and positive emotions work. The kiss of death for learning is boredom and detachment from the subject matter. Emotions influence how you pay attention to events or information.
- Practice attentiveness. Practice concentrating on routine tasks. Learn how to meditate. See how long you can sustain focus on your breathing and keep out all intruding thoughts and the silent “chatter” you usually hear in the mind’s ear. Notice things associated with breathing, but nothing else. Hear the sound of the moving air with each breath. Breathe slowly: six counts in, eight counts out. Notice the rhythm and the gradual slowing. Not only does meditation teach your brain how to concentrate, it also lowers anxiety and contributes to peace of mind.
W. R. Klemm is professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He has authored two books on improving memory and an e-book on learning and memory.
Banai, K., et al. 2010. Learning two things at once: Differential constraints on the acquisition and consolidation of perceptual learning. Neuroscience 165: 436–444.
Ophir, E., C. Nass, and A. D. Wagner. 2009. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science September 15, 2009.