Mind & Body

A New Study Shows How Distraction Can Alter Your Memory

Our world is full of distractions. We strive to master multitasking. We use project management programs to help tackle our to-do lists (at work and even at home). Push notifications, originally designed to save time by "pushing" important information onto the screen without you having to unlock your phone, now (ironically) serve the opposite purpose, drawing you into apps you never planned to open. The itch to look at an alert, let alone open it, becomes nearly unavoidable. While many distractions seem to be only momentary, new research suggests that their consequences could be monumental. They may even be altering your perception and memories of reality.

Danger of Distractions

Our brains process millions of bits of information each second, assessing what's useful and filtering out what's not. Even while you're reading these words, your brain is hard at work blocking irrelevant miscellany — the ticking of the clock on the wall or the conversation on the other side of the room, perhaps — so you can focus on the task at hand.

Sometimes you need to split your attention between a few different points. When driving, your eyes are constantly on a swivel, looking at the road ahead, reading signage, monitoring the speedometer, and checking the mirrors to sense where you are in relation to others. Your attention is further taxed when you've got a child crying in the backseat or you're absentmindedly monitoring your smartphone notifications.

But ultimately, our brains are not wired for multitasking. Even if it just takes 10 minutes to reply to your boss's email while you're working on a big report, the lapse in concentration could set you back up to 25 minutes.

Besides hurting your performance and slowing you down, scientists at the Ohio State University now say distractions can impact your memory in ways you don't even realize.

For a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, the team presented 26 participants with a computer screen that depicted four blank squares. Suddenly, all four squares were colored in — but only one had a white outline. The participants had less than the blink of an eye to look at the colored squares before the screen went blank — then they had to identify the color of the square outlined in white. They'd do that by selecting the color on a color wheel and rating their confidence in their answer. (If they just couldn't remember, they could admit that, too.)

Many of the participants were surprisingly successful, despite the speed. "If I were to show you a video, at speed, you'd be like, 'How do people do that?' But people get quite good at it," Julie Golomb, a senior author on the paper, told Fast Company.

A Challenger Approaches

But that wasn't the only challenge. To make things more difficult, Golomb tried to distract participants by surrounding one of the un-outlined squares with four white dots.

Most of the time, the participants were able to effectively ignore the distracting dots. But 20 to 30 percent of the time, they'd report the color of the distractor square instead of the "correct" target square, a mistake the researchers called a "swapping error." Interestingly, the participants who made swapping errors reported the incorrect color "with just as much confidence as the correct color," Golomb said.

Even stranger was the second most common type of error, which researchers called "repulsion errors." In these errors, participants would almost get the color right, but they'd shift it away from the color that distracted them. For example, if the "correct" color were green and the distraction color orange, participants would click on the blue-green area of the wheel — close to the original color, but farther away from the distraction color. It was like they were unconsciously overcompensating for the distraction.

"It wasn't a conscious strategy, but it still changed what they reported," she said. "It still suggests, even if you're not making the big errors, there can still be subtle, profound effects [from a] distractor."

Jiageng Chen, the study's lead author, said the results raise questions about memory.

"Could it be that, if distraction happens with the right timing, you might adopt elements from the distraction into the thing you think you remember?" he said in a press release.

This phenomenon could help to explain all sorts of memory glitches, from everyday issues ("did I remember to lock the door?") to more critical concerns like eyewitness testimony.

"In the real world, you don't just have colored squares, you have all sorts of objects, dimensions, sizes ... the stakes go way up," Golomb said. "But if we're susceptible to making these errors, if we can mix up something as simple as two solid colored squares, what's that mean when we have a whole incredibly cluttered roll of information?"

So slow down and stay focused on one task at a time. Even more important, remind yourself that your memory isn't perfect. You might think you remember everything clear as day, but it's a good idea to double-check just in case.

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Need help avoiding distraction? Check out the New York Times bestseller, "Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life" by Nir Eyal. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker November 7, 2019

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