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Multitasking on Our Devices May Inhibit Memory, Researchers Find

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Oct 30, 2020

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Image Credit: Istock

Multitasking across digital media, such as switching between apps or simultaneously using multiple devices, could lead to poor memory, according to a study by Stanford University scientists published in Nature. The finding could guide interventions to improve people’s attention and information retention skills and even contribute to therapies for memory conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease.

“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,” Anthony Wagner, a cognitive scientist at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, said in a statement. “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.”

The research team asked 80 participants aged 18 to 26 to look at a screen with a series of images and rate their favorites. After 10 minutes, researchers asked participants to identify, from another series of images, if the images were new or from the previous set. Participants also filled out a questionnaire about how often they engaged with multiple media within an hour and how focused they remained while engaging.

Scientists utilized electroencephalography (ECG) to measure brain activity and pupillometry to measure pupil dilation in order to gauge when participants’ attention lapsed. They found that people who reported more frequent digital multitasking had more attention lapses, determined by a decreased pupil diameter. These lapses occurred just prior to recalling details of an image and were linked to forgetting earlier images and to reduced brain-signal patterns that are associated with episodic (specific event) memory.


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These findings, though correlative, are a new window into the relationship between everyday behavior, attention, and memory. “We can’t [yet] say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures,” Kevin Madore, study co-author and Stanford postdoctoral fellow, said in a statement, “though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions.”

Researchers also note that targeted attention-training interventions, called closed-loop interventions, are an active area of research to help people stay engaged. For example, scientists envision wearable eye sensors that can detect attention lapses in real-time via measuring pupil size.

“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,” Wagner adds.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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