Distractions and the Learning Brain

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Many cities have enacted laws that fine us for talking on our mobile phones while driving. Many of us have probably encountered someone so distracted by texting, that they walk through an intersection against the DO NOT WALK sign!

These types of distractions and the conversations around them are a serious matter because the repercussions involve life and death. However, distractions have other ramifications that are not as readily seen, especially when it comes to getting our work done or having our brains learn something new. In this way, distractions keep us from focusing on the task at hand.

While “multi-tasking” is still bandied about as a plus in some workplaces, research has shown this to be a false assumption. Distractions actually impair memory creation. Media multi-taskers (those folks who seem to be glued to instant messaging, email, Facebook, Instagram and the like) are especially susceptible to the negative impact of distractions on their performance, with a steep drop-off shown in their memory-making results.

This is not to say that all distractions are bad. Let’s face it, there are days when we simply need to give ourselves and our brains a break. When this happens, however, it’s not so much a distraction as it is purposely putting a subject or project aside, thereby giving the brain time to sift through the information being presented to it. Additional research shows that the brain gets bored and loses focus after about 20 minutes on the same subject. When the brain hits this 20-minute wall, it needs a new and different stimulus, or it shuts off its attention completely.

You see, the brain learns best when it has time to consider what it is learning, as well as how the new information is going to be applied. And in this process, the fewer the distractions, the better.