The team wanted to establish what effects why some people have stronger recall, and in particular if one nasty habit could impact it: multitasking. Answering these basic questions about the way our memory recall process works could too have implications for everything from better understanding conditions like Alzheimers to helping people improve their attention and retention in day to day settings.
“We have an opportunity now,” Wagner explains, “to explore and understand how interactions between the brain’s networks that support attention, the use of goals and memory relate to individual differences in memory in older adults both independent of, and in relation to, Alzheimer’s disease.”
A group of 80 participants, aged 18 to 26, had brain waves (specifically called posterior alpha power) monitored by an electroencephalogram while working on tasks involving recall or following changes. “Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” says study lead author Kevin Madore, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab.
The researchers also considered how engaged participants could stay when using multiple media sources at the same time, such as texting while watching television. After these initial assessments, the researchers compared the memory performance of the participants.
They found that those who had a lower ability to sustain attention and who were more frequent “media multitaskers” showed worse performance on memory tasks—though they point out that this simply proves a correlation, not necessarily that one causes the other: “We can’t say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures,” explains Madore, “though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions.”
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