Preserving Focus in an Age of Distractions

Researchers are still uncovering the implications of a study suggesting that memory and learning are impaired by over-use of technologies like the internet, TV, social media and computer games.

The landmark study, conducted by Stanford researchers in 2009, overturned the standard assumption that the internet sharpened cognitive abilities and improved users’ ability to multi-task.

Researchers discovered that those who engaged in regularly media-multitasking scored worse than the control group in the ability to focus on and remember information. It was much harder for these people to distinguish important information from trivia. Ironically, media-multitaskers scored worse than the control group in multitasking itself.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said Eyal Ophir, one of the authors of the study. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The results of this study have been confirmed in a myriad of subsequent research, with profound implications for those intent on staying focused in college and in the office. In short, the more we allow our brains to be distracted from the task at hand, the more we are literally weakening the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that controls our executive functions like concentrating, planning, and synthesizing.

Focus expert Daniel Goleman explains that “Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

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