The “Off” Button

“Executive control”, Sian Beilock wrote in Psychology Today, “is an umbrella term that refers to a collection of cognitive functions—such as attention, planning, memory, initiating actions and inhibiting them. When our impulses get the best of us, a failure in executive control is often to blame.”

One way to keep our executive control sharp is to limit those things within our work environment that are likely to cause distractions for us. Thus, what we said in the previous posts about email applies equally to all social networking sites and media.

Let’s get specific. When you’re studying online for your EPPP, your Facebook page should not be open in another tab, and any other social networking media should also be turned off. This includes services like Skype which operate in the background but change color when someone is trying to contact you.

If what you are studying doesn’t require a live internet connection, then you should disconnect from the internet completely. If you do this, you may find that the ‘off’ button is the most important button in your entire study experience.

In his book The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, Torkel Klingberg cites a survey of workplaces in the United States which “found that the personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and that people working on a computer had on average eight windows open at the same time.” If this parallels your experience as a student, you could be unnecessarily compromising your executive control and vastly underperforming as a consequence.

If you are skeptical that we are over-emphasizing this point, try this test. Every hour you are studying, keep track of how often you use the internet on things not related to your study, even if it’s something as simple as checking your email.

Remember, every time we click a button, it represents a small break in your concentration and thus a decrease in our executive control.

Again, the issue isn’t time. It takes very little time to read a Facebook update or a Twitter message. The issue is your working memory and executive control. Every time we turn our attention, however briefly, to social networking, we are adding new stimuli into our working memory. This stimuli continues to the background of our working memory even when we have returned to the previous activity, slowing down crucial cognitive processing skills in the process.

But that’s not the only reason we should avoid letting our concentration be broken when studying. An equally important factor is that you don’t want to inadvertently train your brain to find sustained concentration difficult. Given the neuroplasticity of the brain, the more you exercise part of it, the stronger that part will become. Consequently, if we are checking Facebook or Twitter updates multiple times every hour, responding to text messages as soon as they arrive, and letting the internet function for us as an ecosystem of interruption technologies, then we are training ourselves to follow interruptions, to be distracted by small and trivial changes in our environment. We are training our brains to prioritize what Tyler Cowen has called “the short, the sweet, and the bitty.”

Internet multitaskers often pride themselves on their ability to juggle many different tasks simultaneously, supposing it to be a sign of efficiency. The irony is that it is actually a sign of inefficiency. Let me end this post by sharing the insightful words of Small and Vorgan from iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind:

“Though we think we can get more done when we divide our attention and multitask, we are not necessarily more efficient. Studies show that when our brains switch back and forth from one task to another, our neural circuits take a small break in between. This is a time-consuming process that reduces efficiency. It’s not unlike closing down one computer program and booting up another—it takes a few moments to shut down and start up. With each attention shift, the frontal lobe executive centers must activate different neural circuits…. Psychologist David Meyer and colleagues at the University of Michigan studied brain efficiency when volunteers quickly switch their mental workouts from identifying hsapes to solving math problems. Both tasks take longer, and mental accuracy declines, when the volunteers are required to make attention shifts, compared with when they focus on only one task for an extended period. Switching back and forth between the two tasks, like answering email while writing a memo, may decrease brain efficiency by as much as 50 percent, compared with separately completing one task before staring another one.”

Further Reading

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