Illustration By Randy Mays For The Washington Post
Illustration By Randy Mays For The Washington Post

I Said, 'Not While You Study!'

By Jeffrey Ghassemi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Memo to: Frustrated parents

From: Health section staff

Subject: Your kids' study habits

There's some impressive new scientific research on your side when you tell your kids they can't possibly do their homework with the TV blaring, instant messenger crawling or MP3 player pumping. Unfortunately, explaining it will require you to get them unplugged from their iPods.

Tell them this: A recent study shows that the ruckus of such multi-tasking may make them learn less, and to use the wrong parts of their brains to store information. Tell 'em they can look it up in the Aug. 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS). Tell them it was done by researchers at UCLA (that's the University of California, Los Angeles, if they don't know).

Tell them you know nearly everybody has this bad habiit, that a 2005 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 60 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders interviewed reported multi-tasking -- watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web and chatting online -- some or most of the time while doing homework.

You could even concede you know about people like Lauren Kyla Pitts, a 19-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, who insists that listening to music (pop, R&B, "all kinds," she says) and IM'ing with her friends are important parts of her college study routine. "For the most part I think it helps me concentrate and avoid daydreaming, which can be really distracting to me," she says.

But researchers have suspected for some time -- just as you may have -- that we pay for trying to perform more than one job at a time.

"Most would agree that there's always a cost associated with multi-tasking," said Russell Poldrack, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and co-author of the PNAS study. "We found that it can have a negative impact on learning."

To test the relationship between multi-tasking and learning, Russell and colleagues assigned 14 twenty-somethings to an exercise that involved learning how to sort various shapes into different piles based on trial and error. Each participant performed the task under two conditions: first, without any distractions; then, while listening to high and low beeps and counting only the high ones. Participants were tested on what they learned under each condition.

(At this point your kids will point out they are not counting beeps while they listen to Death Cab for Cutie. Tell them to just be quiet, that you're getting to that.)

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) -- a technique that tracks increases in blood-oxygen content as an indicator of activity in different parts of the brain -- to evaluate participants' brain activity and function during both conditions.

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