Wednesday, July 26, 2006

multitasking and learning

So, this article by Randolph E. Schmid of the Associated Press discusses the results of a study on multitasking and learning. The study used brain imaging technology to watch activity in the brains of 14 subjects as they tried to learn new information with various sorts of distractions.

I'd be the first to agree that yes, focusing on more than one thing at a time means you can't do everything with full concentration (though certainly some people manage to do this quite efficiently, depending on the tasks). And recent brain research is fascinating.

However, I have a problem with how they're defining "learning." Granted, any scientific study of this kind--extremely narrow and precise--has to use precise, measurable concepts and goals. But here's what Schmid says: "As Poldrack explains it, the brain learns in two different ways. One, called declarative learning, involves the medial temporal lobe and deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second, involving the striatum, is called habit learning."

He uses the example of a phone number: in declarative learning, I would purposefully memorize the number. Kind of like when we had to memorize the multiplication tables, or when one is preparing for a test of knowledge, like a quiz on conjugation of German verbs. In habit learning, I'd come to remember that phone number by using it a lot.

But these are very narrow definitions of learning--useful for describing how we incorporate discrete bits of data into our lives, but now how we combine that data to create meaning. How we work to make sense of the world around us. How might multitasking impact those kinds of learning? Other research has suggested that such learning is best understood as a social activity--is conversation with multiple people multitasking?

2 comments:

Lobo said...

Learning is different from performing - You can have a conversation with several people and keep the topics straight but if you try to learn something new or to a deeper degree, it interferes.

Once we learn several ideas that are related to each other, we 'chunk' the ideas together, like a macro where one button puts many jobs in motion at once or in some order. You think of one thing "a chair" and many ideas or images of what a chair means or what we can use it for flow automatically - our bias, stereotyping, classifications, etc. The brain usually learns one thing at a time and it sometimes takes several exposures to imprint the idea in your brain and it takes repeated exposures over time. Some things can be learned quickly when the 'aha' moment comes or we learn while we have strong emotional reactions (positive or negative) at about the same time.

Multitasking different unrelated activities gets us to trip over ourselves. We can do it but it is inefficient and can confuse the knowledge we already have or are learning at that time. It's interesting to see what we learned years ago now take on a different meaning when we have learned more about it or related subjects. We have added more to our knowedge of what we knew. A new idea must be focused on exclusively for a while to be clear about it and properly categorize it with what we know or create new categories of ideas or facts. This takes time. Just a few thoughts.

susansinclair said...

You say "Learning is different from performing." Are conversations always about performance? Aren't we listening, as well, and learning in that process? I guess my concern with all of this is that it places learning within the individual brain, rather than in the social activity among individuals. I don't know much about theories of distributed cognition, but I wonder how such ideas might change this conversation we're having now?