Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains how students can avoid letting social media and multitasking ruin their study time.
Information is being created and disseminated faster than any of us can absorb it. Google estimates that humans have created more information in the past five years than in all of human history - 300 exabytes of information (300,000,000,000,000,000,000) to be precise. If all that information were written on 3x5 index cards, your personal share of it would wrap around the earth twice. The pile of cards would reach to the moon three times.
Social media, emails, texts, WhatsApp messsages and phone calls take up an increasing amount of time. Our to-do lists are so full that we can’t hope to complete every item on them. So what do we do? We multitask, juggling several things at once, trying to keep up by keeping busy.
Research by Earl Miller of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and others however shows that multitasking doesn’t work - simply because the brain doesn’t work that way. If you’re studying from a book and trying to listen in on a conversation at the same time, those are two separate projects, each started and maintained by distinct circuits in the brain. Pay more attention to one for a moment and you’re automatically paying less attention to the other.
To make matters worse, learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain, as shown by Russ Poldrack of Stanford. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their course work goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised, making it easier to retrieve it.
“People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” says Miller. And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.
As if that weren’t enough to stop you from multitasking, switching back and forth between tasks uses up glucose, which neurons need to function optimally. So, after a morning of switching between Netflix, your lecture notes, and cute cat videos, if you feel as though you can’t settle your mind down to focus and really get something done, it’s because you’ve depleted the neural resources you need to stay engaged and focused.
Students who uni-task, immersing themselves in one thing at a time,remember their work better, get more done, and their work is usually more creative and of higher quality. Fortunately there are a few pieces of advice to help stop modern life getting the better of you.
Make time to let your mind wander
Healthy breaks can hit the reset button in your brain, restoring some of the glucose and other metabolic nutrients used up with deep thought. A healthy break is one in which you allow your brain to rest, to loosen its grip on your thoughts.
Activities that promote mind-wandering, such as reading literature, going for a walk, exercising, or listening to music, are hugely restorative. Many students find that a work-break cycle of 25 minutes work followed by five minutes rest, or even two hours of work followed by 15 minutes of rest promotes efficiency to the extent that they get back the time they spent resting, and then some. A 15 minute nap is even better.
Create a ‘no fly zone’
The pull of social media and the internet is today one of the biggest barriers to effective revision or learning. This is because the brain has a tendency to seek new stimulation, and to try to find the path of least effort. Have you ever sat at your computer, focusing on writing an essay and then found your attention start to flag? You might remember that you had wanted to see a movie, so you go to the internet to look up show times. Then you find there are three movies playing in your area that you’re interested in, so you go to Rotten Tomatoes to look at the reviews, and after that to Facebook to see what your friends thought about it. Before you know it, two hours have gone by and you haven’t gotten any work done. And your brain is worn out from all that stimulation.
Increasingly, students, scientists, and corporate CEOs are enforcing a “no fly zone” period of time when they shut off the internet, a time to focus, to concentrate, to engage deeply in what’s in front of them. This can be as simple as shutting down the browser or turning off your wireless connection. Chrome now has an extension that allows you to limit the amount of time you spend on certain sites, and many other apps are available to help enforce the no fly zone.
Slowly take back the power
The addiction to multitasking and social media is real, there is a dopamine-addiction-feedback loop behind it . The human brain seeks novelty — more pronounced in some of us than others — and dopamine is the brain’s reward for finding it. Dopamine can be thought of as the “give me more” neurochemical. We encounter something new every few seconds through multitasking, we release dopamine, which makes us want to encounter something new, which releases dopamine, and so on, until we’re exhausted.
Many of us allow texts and social media to interrupt us, giving it the power to decide how we’ll spend our time and what we’ll think about. Just small changes in the way we approach the internet, small increases in self-discipline can make all the difference between managing the internet versus letting it manage you. We can’t slow down the flow of information. But we can slow down how much of it we let intrude on our plans, our study time, our social lives, and the daydreaming time that is a necessary part of being productive and creative.