Why is it that some people seem to have better memories than others? This is a question that has plagued everyone from a young age as we struggled to remember material for tests in school. In fact, this is also a puzzling question for neuroscientists and behavioral scientists. A team of scientists from Stanford sought to find the answer to these questions, and recently reported that frequent attention lapses may be one of the causes for poor memory.

These scientists enrolled 80 young adults and tested their ability to complete a memory task while simultaneously measuring any attention lapses they may have. When your mind wanders, your brain activity changes and your pupils are more likely to constrict. Therefore, these scientists measured attention lapses by monitoring both of these changes during the task. They found that attention lapses early on in the task is strongly correlated with ultimately failing, while attention lapses later on is not. This suggests that early engagement is necessary for a good memory — our brain needs to be prepared before we even try to remember.

Additionally, through a survey of the participants, the team of scientists also found that people with increased attention lapses during the task tend to be heavy media multitaskers, i.e. they often perform two or more media-related activities at once, such as reading, watching videos, or listening to music. There have been many previous studies showing that heavy media multitasking is associated with reduced short-term and long-term memory. This study further corroborated that by showing that heavy media multitaskers are more likely to have increased attention lapses and, consequently, poorer memory.

As the world is relying more and more heavily on media and technology, this study warns of a possible troubling trend of deteriorating memory. Our decreasing attention span and increasing familiarity of short tweets and TikTok videos may lead to a worsened ability to remember down the road. More research is needed to determine the exact mechanism of media multitasking, attention lapses, and poor memory, so that appropriate intervention efforts can be made before we all fail to remember anything for tests.

Kevin P. Madore is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychology at Stanford University. 

Managing Correspondent: Wei Li

Press Article: Researchers link poor memory to attention lapses and media multitasking

Original Scientific Article: Memory failure predicted by attention lapsing and media multitasking

Image Credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One thought on “Stop Multitasking on Your Phone: Media Multitasking May Lead to Attention Lapses and Poor Memory

  1. Yes, without any doubt, how well a person remembers something is at least materially affected by how well they are paying attention. But media multitasking should equally be considered the result of someone who has trouble paying attention, not just as causation.

    Why don’t people pay attention? By and large because they are not interested. What is Interest? What causes it? At a high level I would suggest ‘fun’ ”fascination’ ‘excitement’ – of course it the actual material item that causes interest will vary, just as much as people’s interests do (inability to focus though could be medical like having anxiety/a type of stage fright/outside stress/worry/sadness/anger/etc.).

    Just take how fast a child learns and all that they learn. Why would this be written off simply to the stage of the brain? Because that would not be seeing the true picture. A child learns at such a rapid rate because by and large things are new, they are exciting, the world fills them with wonder (or fright). Almost nothing is boring, not even sticking random objects into their mouth of building a fort out of couch pillows. Why though? Because the brain likes couch pillow forts better when you are young? I don’t think so. Rather it’s new, it’s an adventure, and the future (i.e. reality) is still nebulous enough that the couch fort feels like living, instead of feeling like something that has no point. That changes as, (among other things) our ability to adapt makes things feel more common place, which makes it less fun, which makes many things start to feel like work, which fills us with dread, which makes us not feel good being present, which causes us to daydream, which prevents us from paying attention/learning (no doubt I skipped a bunch and it’s unpolished).

    Doubt this? Gather a group of 50 year olds of varying intelligence, all who claim to be bored with life and who don’t do well on your memory tests. Then sequester them for a 2 month study and give them a consistent dowse of Adderral (and like a real dose, which will have to vary based on how their body processes it), and you will see the entire group become adept (or on their way to adept) at one to ten new hobbies that fascinate them. And they will learn at a rate I wager is proportional to their intelligence, and like they did as a child, because it is of course being interested in something that helps us learn. Since showing no interest or paying no attention (literally no attention), means of course one would learn nothing, because they didn’t hear or see any of it, then it stands to reason as you move along the scale, that the more interested someone is, the more they will pay attention, and the more they will learn and remember.

    Really, this is another reason why scientists and philosophers need to work together (those philosophers that understand the fundamental workings of people – but not because Jung or Freud told them a story of Alchemy or unrequited incestual desires – nothing against alchemy of course). Because scientists are excellent at doing the studies and discovering the mechanics and chemicals that underpin the causes known by the philosopher.

    Take this post for example, it should not be news to, I would have thought anyone, that if your mind wanders (when you read, when you perform a memory test, etc.), you obviously will remember less (how many people have had to re-read pages in a book because they were daydreaming the first time? That’s why I tossed Conrad for Rowlings. Harry Potter is the daydream, for me, and I love them even after reading each one 12 times).

    And take my response. You can test out those hypothesis above and I bet you’ll find some important answers. I wish somehow, one day, instead of being disinterested in each other or annoyed, we could instead agree we might both be very good but at two different things. Things that could compliment each other greatly and elevate both of our work to heights neither of us can realize alone. We could help a lot of people teamed up (or team up with someone else who’s better than me, that would be, well, even better), and it actually makes me very sad for what will be wasted, because how many centuries will people have to live with all this extra pain and confusion because of us?

    Science needs to have a broad lens (far broader than all of science or medicine) if they want to find answers instead of snippets, and philosophy needs to be tied into the scientific mechanics so their ideas they can be consistently and usefully reproduced as solutions. (Hey, I’m rather stupid about many things, and if you gave me 3,000 years to figure out how to gather dark matter from the Van Allen belt, I would maybe in that time figure out how to build one of those toy planes where you have to wind a rubber band for it to fly for 10 seconds. Oh and it would be misshapen and look like a rock with 1 wing, and it may not fly very well). There must eventually be some pioneer who sees and feels enough to know the Truth, and how there would be no limit to what we could change and fix and discover.

    Side note – people had bad memories far before the printing press, electricity , and electronic media

    -Nick Staff

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