Distractions Have Concrete Effect on Learning
> 7/25/2006 3:23:23 PM

Every time you sit down to learn something new, you are using one of two parts of your brain. The first, the medial temporal lobe system, engages when we do something called declarative learning, or the learning of facts. The second part of the brain, the striatum, is used when we need to learn habitual behaviors or information. Using brain imaging technology, a team from UCLA was able to create an experiment that has provided a more in depth look at how these two types of learning interact and compete to effect the way that we process and retain new information. Their results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

The group's test asked study participants to perform one learning related task, then, in a second part, asked them to continue with their first task while keeping track of the number of times they heard a high pitched noise. They found that when tasked with only the first problem, the temporal lobe was engaged, while the distraction of a second task caused the brain to rely more heavily on the striatum. This confirmed previous understandings of how the brain regulates learning situations. While the group found that the distractions didn't necessarily harm the ability to perform the first task at the time, but that those who were distracted were less able to recall the learned information at a later date. The researchers called this a lack of flexibility in utilizing the newly learned information.

The AP spoke to Dr. Chris Mayhorn, who teaches psychology at North Carolina State University, who put the team's study into some perspective:

"In my opinion, this article represents a significant step forward in understanding the interaction between the various memory systems possessed by healthy human adults and task demands."

By relying on the habit memory system, he said, "We may find ourselves in situations where we have picked up information about performing some task but we are unsure where that information came from."

In some situations this could be dangerous, he added: "For instance, we may find ourselves making decisions based on 'gut feelings' that utilize this implicit information and not realize that our decisions may be biased by where we learned that information."

At a nuts and bolts level though, what this study illustrates is that for those, like students, who are trying to build stores of factual knowledge that they can actively and easily recall at a later date, any type of distracting activity is almost certainly a hindrance. You will learn, as the researchers and Dr. Mayhorn note, but the extent to which you will learn and then be able to recall the data is another story.

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