In the study, even doing something as simple as pressing a button when animage is flashed caused a delay in brain operation. MRI images showed that acentral bottleneck occurred when subjects were trying to do two things atonce, such as pressing the appropriate computer key in response to hearingone of eight possible sounds and uttering an appropriate verbal responsewhen seeing images. Activity in the brain that was associated with each taskwas prioritized, showing up first in one brain area and then in the other ― notin both areas simultaneously. In other words,
the brain only worked onone task at a time, postponing the second task and deceiving thesubjects into thinking they were working on both taskssimultaneously.
The delay between switching functions was as long as asecond. It is highly likely, though not yet studied, that the delays andconfusion magnify with increases in the number of different things one triesto do simultaneously.So what has this got to do with memory?Well, if you try to memorize the first task and the brain immediatelyswitches to the second task, performance of the second task interferes
consolidation of the memory of the first task
.In my earlier article on memory consolidation, I explained how early memoryis vulnerable to interference and must be protected from distractions andnew information in order for the
memory to be made permanent.
Likewise, there are proactive effects wherein what you learn on the first taskcan interfere with learning on the second. All these problems arecompounded if there are three or more tasks in a “multi-tasking” experience.
Multi-tasking and School Performance
A study of 517 California high-school students found that grades were lowerin those who socially interacted via MySpace, instant messaging (IM)accounts, or who used cell phones. In the study (4), students answered aquestionnaire on what social networking devices they used and when theyused them. The answers were paired with the grades (from the previous yearand the most recent report card).In this study, 72% of the students had a My Space account, 76% had a cellphone, and 68% had an IM address. Those who had a MySpace account hadsignificantly lower grades than those without an account. The same was truefor those that used IM, compared with those who did not. Cell phone use wasalso associated with lower grades and the effect was magnified if textmessaging was used on cell phones. Not surprisingly,if these devices were used during homework, the grades were evenlower than for students who used these technologies outside of homework. Almost half reported text messaging during class time, andtheir grades were lower than the students who only used IM outside of class. These are correlational data and do not prove that using these devicescauses lower grades. But it is a good bet. Multi-tasking, as when using thecommunication devices while trying to do homework or learn in class, can beexpected to interfere with memory. Poor memory yields lower grades.