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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

June 18, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

Does multitasking work?

How often do you dedicate 100 percent of your attention to the subject at hand when it’s time to study or take notes in a lecture? For me, it’s a rarity. When I need to focus, I typically listen to music, doodle or drink hot cocoa, but I always end up getting distracted during the time that I intended to be learning.

As you may have already guessed, multitasking has many negative impacts on studying, including poor retention of information and frustration. Things like texting or watching television while doing homework may seem like harmless time-wasters, but you may not realize how much time you’re really spending focusing on the distractions and straining your brain.

It turns out that while we think we’re effective at multitasking, we can’t truly do multiple things at once. Our brain must switch between tasks — so quickly that the brain makes us think we’re multitasking.

Multitasking puts your executive functions, such as planning, organizing and completing tasks, to the test. Since this means rapidly switching between tasks, productivity drops every time you shift from trying to memorize flash card terms to texting your friend. This also interferes with long-term memory, which is vital for proper learning.

I mentioned that listening to music helps me study, but is this true? Well, there are mixed results depending on the complexity of the task and the type of music. Music becomes less helpful as the task becomes more difficult, but, overall, music has either no effect or a positive one.

As a whole, music can help ease stress, aid in performance and increase your focus. When listening to music, there are many areas of your brain that become engaged, including focusing, anticipating events and updating your memory.

The frontal lobe, at the front of our brain, houses our executive functions, and listening to music can enhance these functions. The temporal lobe, around our ears, is responsible for language and hearing — this is where we process and interpret music. Music helps the hippocampus, in the center of the brain, aiding in memory and emotional responses, meaning that music improves memory and the building of neurons.

In these ways, listening to music while studying can help your brain in several ways, but it can also be distracting if you’re trying to do a difficult or more abstract assignment.

Before signing off, I’d like to briefly talk about another form of multitasking we engage in that benefits the learning process: doodling.

Doodling was once thought to be distracting, but it turns out that doodling helps individuals focus. Instead of zoning out completely, doodling serves as a way to keep you attentive and listening. People who doodled while listening to a boring voice message remembered 29 percent more information than nondoodlers. Doodling also serves as a break from continuous focus that can strain the brain and aids in relieving stress.

All in all, if you find the need to multitask while studying or in class, try music or doodles rather than texting or scrolling.