Texting and watching TV at the same time? It might make your memory worse, according to this new study

Are you proud of your ability to text, scroll through your Instagram feed, and watch Netflix at the same time? So are many young adults, but a new study published in the journal Nature found that this common habit might not be good for your memory in the long run.

All those screens aren’t good for your memory. Image credits: Scheier

You think you’re good at multitasking, but you’re not

As humans, we are genetically inclined to pay attention to one source of information at a time, whether that’s looking closely at foliage to see if there’s a dangerous animal nearby or carefully watching a prey’s every move. It’s an old cognitive mechanism that’s served us well for thousands of generations, but that’s now starting to be challenged by modern-day screen overload.

The average American has access to more than ten connected devices in their household, and each of these devices is competing for our attention, which they eventually get, most of the time. This brings us to a situation where we’re multitasking between multiple phones, TVs, and laptops, and scientists say that this can have concerning effects on our brain health, particularly on memory.

Carried out by researchers at Stanford University, the new study used 80 subjects aged between 18 and 26 to monitor attention lapses in relation to their memory. While the subjects were performing memory-related tasks, such as recalling a situation they had previously heard about or spotting changes to items they have studied, researchers measured their brain activity through electroencephalography (EEG).

At first, participants were shown objects on a computer screen, and they were asked to rate their size and pleasantness. Then, they took a 10-minute break, and they were shown a series of objects again, and asked if they were new or already classified. By analyzing the subjects’ brain and eye responses while they were recalling, scientists could identify lapses in their attention. The findings were later compared to the results of a previous questionnaire, where participants questions about attention, mind wandering, and media multitasking.

What researchers found was that participants who reported high levels of media multitasking tended to have more lapses in attention and decreased pupil diameter, which signals reduced attention. Also, participants who had attention gaps just before remembering were more likely to forget the images they had seen earlier.  

According to head researcher Kevin Madore:

“We found evidence that one’s ability to sustain attention helps to explain the relationship between heavier media multitasking and worse memory.”

However, as Madore also pointed out, the study only demonstrates a correlation (not a causation) between heavy media multitasking and memory failures. After all, some media forms, such as video games, have actually been found to boost attention span, so it’s not yet entirely clear how media and screens affect our brains. Instead, the study shows that the human brain needs to prepare to remember because it depends on goal-directed cognition. According to Anthony Wagner, from Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, “the things that happen even before you begin remembering are going to affect whether or not you can actually reactivate a memory that is relevant to your current goal.”

In a real-world scenario, if you’re texting a friend while your TV show hits you with a plot twist, you’re less likely to remember what your friend was talking about or accidentally confirm a meeting without knowing. We have ways to fix that, of course. You can always go back to old conversations and read them, or use a tool that allows you to restore the deleted text messages. You can dig up screenshots or unwind what you were streaming, but, ultimately, what scientists are trying to point out is that we’re distracted by too many screens, and that we should learn to use them more mindfully.

Improving memory and attention is within our control, researchers say

So, should you go ahead and get rid of all your screens? That won’t be necessary because, according to Stanford researchers, the strategies needed to improve memory and attention are already within our control – we just need to be more disciplined and prepare our brains for remembering. For example, you can increase your readiness to remember by limiting distractions or changing your surroundings so that you can be focused on one screen at a time. Scientists are also exploring “closed-loop interventions”: targeted interventions that can help you stay more engaged with a single task.

When doing media multitasking, it can be easy to forget that there may be another person at the end of the screen. In time, this can weaken personal connections. For example, while texting may be popular thanks to its convenience, it can make it hard to determine the true meaning behind a conversation. Add the extra distraction of a TV or laptop, and it’s not hard to imagine why you don’t feel too connected with the person you texted for two hours last night. So what can you do? Look away from the other screens, of course, or you can just call. Phone calls may not be too popular these days, and they’re almost obsolete among young adults but, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they can create stronger social bonds and help you reconnect with old friends better than texting. Also, even if participants in the study anticipated the phone calls to be awkward, they felt much better after hearing another person’s voice.

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