Advance Performance | The Effects of Digital Distraction on Our Memories and What We Can Do About It
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The Effects of Digital Distraction on Our Memories and What We Can Do About It

The Effects of Digital Distraction on Our Memories and What We Can Do About It


How many times during your working day do you check your phone for messages, texts, social media updates, breaking news, notifications, and Likes? Research says it is generally around 25% of your time!

If you feel that you are drowning in data in the form of information, messages and images, you are definitely not alone. It is becoming a crisis in our society to which our brains have not adapted. But how can we change our social media habits to be more positive?

This summer, Princeton University will distribute Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams to all its new students to invite them to engage with the ethical questions of digital technology and their attention in learning tasks.  The President at Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber says in the book’s forward:

Digital technology has revolutionised the way we live and communicate, and it has done so with dizzying speed. We have had little time or opportunity to adapt the habits, customs and cultures that humanity has relied upon for centuries to organise life and render it meaningful. We are living very differently than we did in the recent past.”

Interestingly, researchers reporting on Digital Distraction among university students are reaching the same conclusion of around 25% loss of study time as in employees at work by checking their digital devices for updates. This is not just a loss of “work” time; the attention break physically distracts the individual’s brain from their original task.

Gloria Mark who studies Digital Distraction at the University of California discovered that it takes the brain 1,395 seconds to return to fully focusing on a task after an interruption to check social media or an email in your inbox.  That is over 23 minutes before you can give the task your full concentration. It is no wonder we feel overwhelmed by information and feel we “forget” facts or schedules.

The reason we do believe that we forget information or facts don’t seem to sink in is the physical effect of this barrage of scrolled information and multitasking are not embedding as strong memories. Basically, the dendrites are not forming within the thalamus where the information is deep coded and memories are stored. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen explore this in their book The Distracted Mind. The stream of information only has a chance to enter the working space of the brain, the amygdala, and then our thoughts literally jump to the next piece of information we are scrolling past. We are not giving our brains the opportunity to form the physical dendrites of the memory to store valuable pieces of information in the thalamus.

So what can we do? We need to change our social media habits, and we know we can change our behaviour from our courses and talks with Heather.

  • Focus on one task and one screen at any one time. Put your phone in a drawer or in your bag, and mute it when you are concentrating.
  • Keep a rule of no phones on the desk or table during meetings – unless your loved one is in a health emergency situation, you can wait to check your phone.
  • When focusing on a piece of information, take a whole minute to absorb it so that it goes from the amygdala to be stored in the thalamus, and you ensure your dendrites are established to store the memory.
  • Schedule yourself specific times each day when you check your phone – such as when you are making a coffee, before you set off to an appointment or meeting, and before you start your commute home.
  • Ensure you switch off your devices an hour before you go to bed so that you can allow your brain to relax away from the electronic screen.

By actively changing our thoughts on how we respond to social media and setting up new positive social media habits, we can retrain our brains again to focus on the prioritised task, give our full attention to learning and understanding information, and establishing our memories.