May 10, 2014

Multitasking And Memory Skills

Juggling tasks can divide attention and hurt learning and performance. Does it also hinder short-term memory?

Multitasking And Memory Skills

My six-year-old grandson is consistently better than I am at the memory games! We have played enough times by now that I know it’s not a fluke and I am not letting him win either. But why?

An article written by Matt Richtel entitled Multitasking Takes Toll on Memory may shed some light on why I’m less adept at childhood memory games and other short term attention tasks.

A growing body of research shows that juggling many tasks, as so many people do in this technological era, can divide attention and hurt learning and performance.

Does it also hinder short-term memory?

Elaine C Pereira
Alzheimer's Reading Room

That’s the implication of a study published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research shows that multitasking takes a significantly greater toll on the working memory of older people.

Researchers said the key finding of the new study is that people between the ages of 60 and 80 have significantly more trouble remembering tasks after experiencing a brief interruption than do people in their 20s and 30s.

“As your brain ages, it’s harder to get back to the task at hand after an interruption.”

Dr. Gazzaley’s study looked at a type of memory called working memory, which is considered a precious and finite resource that people tap into when they are engaged in a task, like doing a work project or having a conversation.

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Dr. Gazzaley said the study sheds more light on the reasons that short-term memories seem suddenly to go empty, as when someone stands in front the refrigerator, forgetting what it is he went to get.
“Events such as these increase in frequency as we get older — the classic senior moment. We now understand that this is not necessarily a memory problem per se, but often the result of an interaction between attention and memory,” he said. 
For example, a phone call or text that interrupts us on the way to the refrigerator will negatively impact our ability to remember what we were going to the refrigerator to get in the first place.
From personal experience it’s not always a literal interruption that distracts me from remembering what I wanted from the refrigerator, but simply allowing my thoughts to drift to something else, like what’s next on my to-do list.

I’m great at multitasking. Balancing three or four activities at once is not a challenge.

My son-in-law is pretty amazing in the simultaneous skills department also. I’ve watched him balance his thirteen month old on his left hip with his left arm tightly cradled around the toddler while flipping pancakes with his right. And intermittently he was juggling drinks and using the side of a fork to cut pancakes for his other two kids.

We and other multi-taskers are possibly doomed to have declining working memories as we age.

Balancing physical activities like flipping pancakes and pouring drinks does not adversely tap the brain’s concentration and attention. However, answering a question, jotting down a reminder note to ourselves, or mediating a squabble between the kids over their deafening non-stop protests does zap our “precious and finite working memory”.

This is a warning I plan to heed, as should the rest of you, as I am so guilty of perceiving down time as wasted time and usually have two or three concentration heavy projects underway at any given time. If Dr. Gazzaley’s study is correct long term, before I/we exhaust our possibly finite working memory, we need to step away from the keyboard, take a deep breath and clear our head, before it’s empty!

PS: Just for the fun of it, I asked my multitasking wizard son-in-law and my one-thing-at-a-time-only daughter to play several rounds of memory games with my grandson and record the score. Although my casual “study” doesn't meet any statistical standards, it was nevertheless interesting that my daughter can match wits with her son much better (8 wins in 10 games) than Dad. My son-in-law lost 5 out of 7 matches.

Maybe further study is in order!

I Will Never Forget

Elaine C Pereira, is the Award Winning author of the Best Selling memoir I Will Never Forget.

The Alzheimer's Reading Room