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Doing more, but remembering less

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It turns out that multitasking, that much-vaunted skill that everyone supposedly needs to survive in this frenzied, fast-forward digital age, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

In fact, if you’re trying to learn something new that you hope will stick in your memory, the distraction of multitasking can adversely affect the way you learn — and actually involve another part of the brain that you use to learn.

If you are trying to master facts and concepts, the fewer distractions, the better, advises Russell Poldrack, associate professor of psychology and co-author of a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to spot active brain areas.

In looking at brain activity of subjects who performed a simple task using trial and error, researchers found that when the subjects were given a second task to perform simultaneously, they didn’t learn as well. The study showed that multitaskers had a reduced capacity to recall memories.

Imaging might explain why. Researchers found that subjects learning the task without distraction used the brain’s hippocampus, which plays critical roles in processing, storing and recalling information. But in the brains of multitaskers, a different brain system was involved, the striatum. The striatum underlies our ability to learn new skills. Patients with Parkinson’s, for example, have damage to the striatum. While they can recall the past, they have trouble learning new motor skills.

“Our study indicates that multitasking changes the way people learn,” said Poldrack, who worked with co-authors, Professor Barbara Knowlton and graduate student Karen Foerde.

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