Many of us, perhaps most of us, have taken to looking at our phones or laptops while we’re watching TV.
But while looking up the cast of the latest Netflix drama on Wikipedia might feel like it’s expanding your mind, it could be doing just the opposite.
Researchers at Stanford University have identified a link between ‘second screening’ and memory loss. Volunteers had their brain activity and the size of their pupils measured as they undertook various screen-based tasks and memory tests.
They also completed questionnaires to measure how frequently they indulged in second-screening, as well as identifying other psychological traits such as the length of their attention span, and impulsiveness.
“Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” explained study lead author Kevin Madore, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab.
“We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter – in particular before you do different tasks – are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”
He stressed that while his team had identified a link between memory failures and second-screening, it’s too early to say that one definitely causes the other.
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“We can’t say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures,” Dr Madore said, “though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions.”
His colleague Anthony Wagner added: “As we navigate our lives, we have these periods in which we’re frustrated because we’re not able to bring knowledge to mind, expressing what we know.
“Fortunately, science now has tools that allow us to explain why an individual, from moment to moment, might fail to remember something stored in their memory.”
In the longer term, say Wagner and Madore this research could be used to devise wearable eye sensors that measure concentration and distraction.
“We have an opportunity now,” Dr Wagner said, “to explore and understand how interactions between the brain’s networks that support attention, the use of goals and memory relate to individual differences in memory in older adults both independent of, and in relation to, Alzheimer’s disease.”
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