This is your Brain on the Internet – Multi-Tasking research

Ian! D. Allen –

Fall 2013 - September to December 2013 - Updated 2018-11-05 03:13 EST

1 This is your Brain on the InternetIndexup to index

How to Multitask (Dilbert)

2 Limiting the use of distracting devices in classIndexup to index

About your addictive technology:

Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day. […] There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.” […] It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. – Our minds can be hijacked

Device addiction, social anxiety, FOMO, and phubbing:

“This simple solution to smartphone addiction is now used in over 600 U.S. schools … Grades have gone up”

Your professor may limit the use of devices in lectures due to unavoidable cognitive distraction problems for yourself and other students.

Read Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.

In the comment section in Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class, you will read this:

I usually end up choosing to use my laptop – and I almost always regret it. I sit through a whole class and realize I have taken two notes and that I know nothing about what we just spent hours learning; and as I look around, nearly every person is as lost as I am. It’s not that we don’t want to listen or pay attention, it’s that we can’t.

The mere presence of your smart phone near you reduces your cognitive capacity.

Your cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach — even if it’s off. […] The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.

Is your device furthering your education or hindering it? Turn it off! Better still – don’t even bring it into the room.

3 Hand-written class notes are better than typed laptop notesIndexup to index

In Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away, research shows that hand-writing your in-class notes is better for memory than typing the notes on a device.

4 Multi-tasking and device distractionsIndexup to index

Your smartphone is making you stupid, anti-social, and unhealthy

Eric Andrew-Gee explores the growing body of scientific evidence that digital distraction is damaging our minds. […] Used the way we currently use them, smartphones keep us from being our best selves. The world is starting to make up its mind about whether it’s worth it and whether the sugary hits of digital pleasure justify being worse, both alone and together.

Multi-tasking tires your brain

When we attempt to multitask, we don’t actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them. And this switching is exhausting. It uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, running down the same fuel that’s needed to focus on a task. “That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,”

How the Internet changed the way we read

I’ve discovered that one of the biggest lies about American culture (propagated even by college students) is that Americans don’t read. … We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.

The case against E-readers (from Slashdot)

Reading text on paper minimizes distractions

Michael Rosenwald writes in the WaPo that textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer reading on paper for pleasure and learning. This bias surprises reading experts, given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally. “These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” says Naomi S. Baron. “It’s quite astounding.” Earlier this month, Baron published Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, a book that examines university students’ preferences for print and explains the science of why dead-tree versions are often superior to digital (PDF).

Her conclusion: readers tend to skim on screens, distraction is inevitable and comprehension suffers. Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension — something that is more difficult on screens, primarily because the time we devote to reading online is usually spent scanning and skimming, with few places (or little time) for mental markers.

Another significant problem, especially for college students, is distraction. The lives of millennials are increasingly lived on screens. In her surveys, Baron was surprised by the results to the question of whether students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1 percent) vs. reading on-screen (90 percent). “When a digital device has an Internet connection, it’s hard to resist the temptation to jump ship.”

Reading from a screen harms our ability to concentrate

Ninety-two per cent of all the students ages 18 to 26 said, ‘I concentrate better when I read in print.’

Research Matters / The Magic of Writing Stuff Down – Note taking is an effective memory and learning aid because it prompts students to think about their learning; it’s more effective when done by hand; and young writers, even those with learning disabilities, aren’t well served by moving too quickly to keyboarding.

To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand – Students do worse on quizzes when they use keyboards in class: “The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.” She thinks this might be the key to their findings: Take notes by hand, and you have to process information as well as write it down. That initial selectivity leads to long-term comprehension.”

With almost all of the world’s codified knowledge at your fingertips, why should you spend increasingly scarce attention loading up your own mind just in case you may some day need this particular fact or concept? Far better, one might argue, to access efficiently what you need, when you need it. This depends, of course, on building up a sufficient internalized structure of concepts to be able to link with the online store of knowledge. How to teach this is perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity facing educators in the 21st century.

Think the abundance of technology in your life is making it harder to concentrate for long periods? Microsoft might just have some evidence to support your theory. It recently published a study (conducted using both surveys and EEG scans) suggesting that the average attention span has fallen precipitously since the start of the century. While people could focus on a task for 12 seconds back in 2000, that figure dropped to 8 seconds in 2013 – about one second less than a goldfish.

In an era of email, text messages, Facebook and Twitter, we’re all required to do several things at once. But this constant multitasking is taking its toll. Here neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explains how our addiction to technology is making us less efficient. […] Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.

Simultaneously using mobile phones, laptops and other media devices could be changing the structure of our brains, according to new University of Sussex research.

Laptops have replaced pen and paper for many post-secondary students but a Canadian study suggests using computers during lectures could be hurting their grades and lowering their classmates’ marks. Original source:

Developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina talks about his new book, Brain Rules. Learn about the need for exercise, attention-grabbing events, and our inability to multitask. [Podcast with transcript]

A recent study by a Louisiana State University psychology professor adds more evidence to the argument that the human brain is incapable of performing numerous tasks without memory and productivity loss. “In four separate experiments, both local second-graders and LSU psychology students were shown words on a computer screen and instructed to remember them in the correct sequence. As the participants read the words, they also sometimes heard unrelated words in the headphones all were wearing. Adults in the LSU study showed a word recall performance drop of 10% on average, while the second-graders’ performance diminished by up to 30% on average.”

Today’s relentless email flood could steer you away from high-value work and even out of work entirely if you don’t learn defensive strategies. That sounds obvious until you hear that a British study found that half of all information workers respond to an e-mail within 60 minutes of receipt. That’s no strategy at all, unless you consider crossing items off your colleagues’ To Do lists to be your highest priority. Taking that approach is so literally mind-numbing that the study further concluded that overdoing email can be as detrimental to your IQ as smoking weed.

For others it’s a question of the types of behavior that these digital channels engender. Transmissions are quick and cursory, attentions spans are reduced, users aren’t paying attention to any one message because they’ve got six windows open at once. And everybody knows multitasking is not only making you depressed but preventing you from doing any one of those tasks well. Which is making you more depressed. Vicious.

“Checking a Twitter, Facebook or email account for updates may be more tempting than alcohol and cigarettes, according to researchers who tried to measure how well people regulate their daily desires. Researchers also found that while sleep and sex may be stronger urges than certain drug addictions, people are more likely to give in to their addiction to use social or other types of media.”

“when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent. […] if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.”

Lose the headset: gaming doesn’t train you to multitask. All of us are poor multitaskers; a study tries proving this includes gamers too.

“These days we’re all supposed to be multitaskers—juggling e-mail, IM, Twitter, the TV on in the background, and more. This is despite a seemingly constant stream of evidence that, as humans, we’re really not that good at doing more than one thing (and certainly more than two) at once.”

“Students who use Facebook and hit the books simultaneously found their multitasking led to 20% lower grades than those of their more focused peers. Facebook-using students also made less money during school from part-time work, putting in around five hours per week as opposed to 16 hours per week for a typical, unplugged counterpart.”

“Psychologists say this kind of multitasking is easier for young adults than children or older people because of development in a certain area of the brain, and is also a lot less efficient than focusing on one task at a time.”

“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” [excerpts]

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going-so far as I can tell-but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. […]

The faster we surf across the Web-the more links we click and pages we view-the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link-the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction. […]

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut-“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”-and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

An overview of the problem of remembering what we search for:

“Wolf expressed her grave concern that the development of knowledge in children who are heavy users of the Internet could produce mere”decoders of information who have neither the time nor the motivation to think beneath or beyond their googled universes”, and cautioned that the web’s “immediacy and volume of information should not be confused with true knowledge”.

Summary video: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains Hour video: Nicholas Carr – The Shallows

Review by Marc Parry, July 2010, of “The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr”. Carr’s original article was “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (above)

People who multi-task don’t transfer information from short term to long term storage – they don’t remember what they do!

“Studies pretty clearly show that when our attention is divided, it becomes much more difficult to transfer information from our short-term memory, which is just the very temporary store, to our long-term memory, which is the seat of understanding.”

“How Social Media Is Ruining Your Mind” [excerpts]

Enterprising scientists are tracking the effects of social media on the human brain and human behavior. They’ve begun to notice some interesting trends in the way users become distracted, self-promoting, and even drugged by the experiences on Web 2.0 […]

That same multitasking can cause users to become distracted, with minds halfway in the digital realm even when trying to focus on other tasks. Wherever the balance is struck between risk and benefit for social media it seems apparent that the impact on the brain is profound, rapidly onsetting, and growing. It takes just hours of regular online activity before scientists can detect changes in the mind, and those changes are only going to increase as people spend more time on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Billions more people around the globe will gain regular internet access in upcoming decades so it’s likely that these newly perceived trends are going to become a nearly universal part about what it means to be human in the 21st Century

“The Autumn of the Multitaskers”

“Neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy.”

“Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires-the constant switching and pivoting-energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus-which stores and recalls information-to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction-but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over. Even worse […]”

This essay is a real gem, with many examples related to student learning.

“The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music.”I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it. […]

It begins by giving us more tasks to do, making each task harder to do, and dimming the mental powers required to do them. It finishes by making us forget exactly how on earth we did them (assuming we didn’t give up, or “multi-quit”), which makes them harder to do again.”

“In a seventy-five-minute class that permits students to be”plugged in,” a student with an open laptop takes electronic notes just as much as he social networks: 34 minutes with a margin of error of 5 minutes. Looking at websites that are relevant to class is only slightly more common than looking at websites that are irrelevant to class: 36 as opposed to 32 minutes. A student with an open laptop spends, on average, 27 minutes sending and receiving email and 11 minutes reading an electronic newspaper. That these numbers sum to more than the seventy-five class minutes hints at the prevalence of in-class, electronic multitasking.”

“I disagree about the efficiency argument that was just made. It may be more efficient but the ability to multitask can divide your attention to the point where you may get things done but you may not be doing them to the best of your ability. For example, last year I was planning an (extracurricular) event and I had at least one hundred emails to take care of. I did it during one of my favorite classes and I really didn’t get much out of it that day. It was efficient because I planned the event and attended class, but both my emails and my notes suffered.”

“Technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”

By Philip Zimbardo: playing video games for thousands of hours has changed perceptions

“The Dark Side of the 21st Century: Concerns About Technologies in Education” “Brain Alterations Caused by the World Wide Web” - a list of quotes and pointers to articles about brain changes

“Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains” - using web rewires brain; switching tasks makes us forget

“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a bottleneck in our brain. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind. […]

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe. […]

But it would be a serious mistake to look narrowly at such benefits and conclude that the Web is making us smarter. In a Science article published in early 2009, prominent developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies, she wrote, has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.” […]

Last year, researchers at Stanford found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

multitasking makes learning worse

Forget what you know about good study habits: “With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

“When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem,” said Dr. Rohrer. “That’s like riding a bike with training wheels.” With mixed practice, he added, “each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure – just like they had to do on the test.”

No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.

We have entered the three-minute world. Anything that takes longer is just not worth it. This is the new attention span. The length of material students are required to read in school increases around the same time their use of screens increases. By Grade 7 or 8, the curriculum begins to include novel study, and high schools require the reading of significantly longer and more complex texts — or at least they used to.

When a teacher hands out a novel today, students ask, “Is there a movie of this?” If not, the next stop is SparkNotes, a website that provides short plot summaries. Today, reading literature means reading what the book’s about.

Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?

“FaceTime, the Apple video-chat application, is not a replacement for real human interaction, especially for children, according to a new study. Tween girls who spend much of their waking hours switching frantically between YouTube, Facebook, television and text messaging are more likely to develop social problems, says a Stanford University study published in a scientific journal on Wednesday.”

Train your Brain to Focus (Harvard Business Review)

5 Recovering from MultitaskingIndexup to index

Tabless Thursdays: Learning to single-task again. I Thought I Needed To Multitask Until I Learned About Single-Tasking. Now I Feel Multi-Silly.

The above article has some fun methods to wean yourself from Facebook, some using electrical shocks. See Also: How to focus in the age of distraction

| Ian! D. Allen, BA, MMath  -  -  Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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