Research highlight

Neuroscience: Media multitasking is associated with memory failure


October 29, 2020

Engaging with multiple forms of digital media simultaneously, known as media multitasking, may have a negative effect on memory performance in young adults, reports a paper in Nature this week. The findings suggest that heavy media multitasking, such as prolonged television watching whilst texting and surfing the internet, is associated with an increase in attention lapses and forgetting.

The reasons behind human forgetfulness, and why some individuals remember better than others, have long been questioned. With the rise of today’s digital culture, understanding how media multitasking relates to differences in episodic memory (memory of events) adds to these longstanding questions.

In a group of 80 young adults (aged 18–26 years), Kevin Madore, Anthony Wagner and colleagues examined whether media multitasking relates to spontaneous attention lapses, and whether attention lapses negatively relate to remembering. Participants were briefly presented with images of objects on a computer screen. After a delay period of ten minutes, they were presented with a second round of images and had to identify whether they were bigger or smaller, more pleasant or unpleasant, or if they had seen the image before or not compared to the previous set. Attention lapses were assessed by measuring changes in brainwave activity and pupil diameter. Participants also answered questionnaires that measured their weekly media multitasking engagement, symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsivity, video game usage, attention and mind wandering tendencies.

The results suggest that lapses of attention in the moment prior to remembering were related to a reduction in the neural signals of memory, along with forgetting. The authors propose that heavier media multitasking may be associated with a tendency to suffer more frequent attention lapses, which contributes to worse episodic memory.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2870-z

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