Multitasking Destroys Your Ability to Learn

Takeaway: Your brain literally cannot learn when you are multitasking. This is an issue of biology, and it’s not up for debate.

If you really want to learn, you can’t be doing anything else while you study. Simply put, your brain isn’t designed to do that, and it can’t adapt on this particular issue. This means that you have to focus on the task at hand and eliminate as close to everything else that would capture your attention as you can.

The Issue of Forming Memories

One of the main issues has to do with actually forming memories and moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Consider the following:

Stress and sleep aside, multitasking behaviors can also disrupt your brain’s ability to store new memories, says David Meyer, a professor of psychology and cognition at the University of Michigan who has studied the impacts of multitasking on memory. “When you’re multitasking, that’s interfering with processes that normally would be devoted 100% to doing the mental work that moves info from short term memory into long term memory,” he explains.

He mentions a well-known experiment during which researchers observed the brain activity of people who were trying to learn new information while multitasking. Compared to a group that was focused solely on learning the new info, the multitaskers had disruptions in the parts of their brain used for learning and memory consolidation. On a follow-up test, the multitaskers had higher error rates than their single-focus counterparts, Meyer says. Your brain needs small breaks after a task in order to lock away new memories. If you’re replying to emails while participating in a conference call or chatting with a colleague, Meyer says, your over-tasked mind just won’t have the chance to store the new information it’s collecting. (Source: Time)

Something that’s really important here is that a lot of people who study really hard feel like they aren’t doing very well in terms of actually learning and understanding the material. Removing the multitasking element is a simple thing you could do to drastically increase your ability to learn, understand and retain information.

Where Information Goes in Your Brain

The multitasking issue can also affect where information goes in your brain on a literal, physical level. If it goes to the wrong place, then you simply will not learn in a way that’s conducive to making actual gains.

Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve. Source: The Guardian)

While all of this is very interesting from a biological perspective, it also puts you in a position where it’s an absolute must to single-task when it comes to your study.

Implications on All Things

If you want to get better at anything, whether it’s studying, playing a sport or whatever else, then you have to single-task during your practice. Any type of study, practice or other type of work done will not be very effective at all without an appropriate level of focus, and that can only come from single-tasking and not trying to force your brain to do things that it’s not designed to do.