An 8th grader’s multitasking goes awry

December 28, 2012 - 06:17

Teens are good at multitasking, but learn less while they’re doing it.

How well do eighth graders learn while multitasking? (Photo: NRK)

Ingrid, Brage and Miriam at Blussuvoll Junior High School in Trondheim say they often watch TV, listen to music or play with a computer while doing homework.

But can young people really learn while juggling so many different activities?

The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation's (NRK) science programme “Schrödingers katt” collaborated with Psychology Professor Saman Annika Melinder in a test of eighth graders’ learning capabilities while multitasking.

Melinder leads the University of Oslo's Unit for Cognitive Development Psychology (EKUP) research group.

A school class was divided into two groups, one of which watched a film without being disturbed.

The second group, the multitaskers, watched the film while being distracted by their mobile phones or PCs. 

After the film ended, the pupils were tested with questions to determine how many details they retained from the film they’d seen.

The multitaskers scored lower than the control group when answering questions relating to the parts of the film that took place when their attention had been divided.

“The more pressure on brain processes, the poorer the performance. This has been proven through experimental psychological research,” says Melinder.

Experts at switching

The University of Oslo's Melinder says we can train our multitasking capabilities and become more effective at switching between tasks.

However, Melinder is sceptical about how useful this is for young people when they’re trying to learn something.

“They become experts at switching between different tasks, and retaining the uploaded information for a short time in their memory. But when they have to think about and learn something over a longer period, it’s unclear how much expertise they can count on,” says Melinder.

Youths better than adults

A number of studies show that young people are better than adults at multitasking, even though scientists cannot provide a definitive reason why. 

“These are functions that peak when a person is in his or her twenties,” says Annika Melinder.

Brain researchers are curious about the phenomenon and have tried to find out which brain mechanisms are at play.

A study conducted by Wesley C. Clapp and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis compared the multitasking capabilities of young people and older adults using functional MRI.

They discovered that older subjects were just as adept at shifting their focus from one activity to an activity that interrupted them, but younger subjects were much better at returning to the activity that had previously held their attention.

Their study showed that adult participants encountered difficulties detaching themselves from the disturbance and re-establishing connections to the memory network that had been interrupted.

Other studies have shown a small percentage of the population consists of so-called “supertaskers” who are particularly adept at doing many things at the same time without getting all mixed up. But apparently only 2.5 percent of the population has this gift. 

And contrary to myth, men are better at multitasking than women are, according to a fresh study from Stockholm University.

Harder to multitask between similar assignments

Professor May-Britt Moser at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory says multitasking requires a switching of attention and working memory, or short-term memory.

“Working memory has a limited capacity so it’s harder to multitask among similar assignments than among ones that differ widely, since they use capacity in an area of the brain that deals with a certain type of information or memories,” says Moser.

She gives an example: “Counting and solving math problems at the same time doesn’t work so well, but listening to music and doing math functions a bit better.”

Perhaps this is why so many teens can listen to music while doing their homework. 

But if you want to retain what you’re learning, it’s best to turn off any disturbing elements: “You have to concentrate on a matter to learn something. You need time to consolidate what you are learning and you have to delve deeply into it. Otherwise it won’t get imprinted in your memory,”  Melinder says.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling