"A new study challenges the idea that distraction is necessarily a problem for learning" according to researchers at Brown University.
They found that if attention was as divided during recall of a motor task as it was during learning the task, people performed as if there were no distractions at either stage.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Maybe distraction is not always the enemy of learning. It turns out in surprising Brown University psychology research that inconsistent distraction is the real problem. As long as our attention is as divided when we have to recall a motor skill as it was when we learned it, we’ll do just fine, according to the new study.
Most learned motor tasks — driving, playing sports or music, even walking again after injury — occur with other things going on. Given the messiness of our existence, said lead researcher Joo-Hyun Song, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences, the brain may be able to integrate the division of attention during learning as a cue that allows for better recall when a similar cue is present.
“The underlying assumption people have is that divided attention is bad — if you divide your attention, your performance should get worse,” Song said. “But learning has a later, skill-retrieval part. People haven’t studied what’s the role of divided attention in memory recall later.”
Now Song and neuroscientist Patrick Bédard have. Their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved two main experiments.
In the first, 48 volunteers manipulated a stylus on a touchpad to virtually reach for targets on a computer screen. The trick to learn was that the computer would bend the virtual world by 45 degrees, so the subjects had to compensate. Meanwhile some volunteers also had to perform another task, which was to count symbols that moved by on the screen as they made their awkward reaches. Other volunteers saw the symbols but were told they could ignore them.
Later the subjects would demonstrate their new reaching skills, some with and some without again having to count symbols.
The subjects were therefore split into five groups based on whether they had to endure the symbol distraction either during learning or during recall and to what degree (high or low). For example, the “none-none” group never dealt with the symbols, the “high-none” group were distracted when learning but not during recall and the “high-high” group had their attention equally divided at both times.
When the researchers looked at how well the subjects in each group recalled the task, they found that the high-high group did as well as the none-none group, while the high-none, low-none and none-high groups all struggled. It was as if those who were denied the same degree of distraction during testing as they experienced during learning suffered a disadvantage.
Source: Brown University