Smart people do this a lot, but it may not be so smart

November 16th, 2015 by NHI

Common Mistake of High Achievers can Weaken the Memory

If you’re finding it harder with the passing years to retain information that you’re trying to remember, it may not be the fault of a faltering brain.

You may just be trying to learn new things the wrong way.

Today we’re living in a distracted, information-saturated world: cellphones, computers and video screens all vie for our attention.

No wonder we’re all having problems focusing and remembering. If you want to improve things, you might want to stop doing this. . .

Continued Below. . .


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To help your brain keep up with important information, avoid the most common mental mistake many of us make: Resist the urge to multitask.

When faced with a group of items calling for attention, don’t juggle several mental projects at once. This habit fragments your focus and reduces your ability to remember.

Research supports this notion: Multitasking sends the information you need to recall to a part of the brain that is not very effective at retaining new information.

“Multitasking adversely affects how you learn,” says researcher Russell Poldrack, a full professor at Stanford. “Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multitasking, you will use different brain systems.”

Prof. Poldrack’s lab study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain activity of people trying to accomplish two or more mental tasks at the same time.1

The tests showed that while – at first — multitasking didn’t compromise people’s accuracy in performing demanding projects, it impairs the later ability to precisely recall details about what their activity was. Information encountered during multitasking is less accessible for conscious recall.

“The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember,” Prof. Poldrack says. “Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don’t learn as well as if you had paid full attention.”

Areas of the Brain that Learn

Prof. Poldrack explains that different types of memory are handled by separate areas of the brain. If you try to remember where you were last Monday or bring to mind somebody’s face, you use what’s called “declarative” memory.

On the other hand, when you recollect how to ride a bike or play ping pong, you implement what is known as “procedural” memory. This memory relies on the part of the brain that usually helps call forth the physical knowledge of how to coordinate muscle activities. It is inefficient at retaining concepts and ideas.

The distractions of multitasking derail declarative memory, which takes place in the brain’s hippocampus. Instead, it diverts your mental activity to a brain location called the striatum, the home of procedural memory. And when facts or ideas are diverted to the striatum, your ability to recall them later is fuzzier.

This Kind of Multitasking Can be Good

Studies show that there is one place that multitasking pays off – the gym. If you read a book or listen to music while you do aerobic exercise on a treadmill or elliptical trainer, for example, your exercise can be more intense and productive.2

But when you are immersed in trying to learn new information, concentrate on one thing at a time for better learning. Plus, if you take a mental break now and then to let your brain refresh, your learning will also be improved – Periodically take a short walk. Hum a song. Daydream. Don’t forget to let your mental energy recharge.


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