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Distraction Can Be Good For Learning, Psychologists Surprisingly Find

Distraction Can Be Good For Learning, Psychologists Surprisingly Find

We know from the early age that the best way to study is to sit in a quiet room, to have nobody to bother you and to completely focus on your assignment. It is quite true, but not for all the situations. For some occasions, distractions are not so bad. For example, if you know that you will have some distractions during your exam, it is better to learn the material under the same or similar distracting factors. Let us see what scientists have discovered about this.

Science speaks

The research on this matter began long ago. In 1999, there was an experiment with forty students participating. They were asked to read certain text and to complete a written test on it later. Half of the group read it in a silent room; the other half did it in a noisy one. Then both groups got two tests. They took one test in silence and another one with different distractions. The results showed that those students who had studied the information in silence, did the test in silence better. And those who had read the article in a noisy room showed better results within a noisy context.

Another fun experiment was carried out by researchers and  scuba divers. Divers were asked to learn words while they were actually scuba diving. Afterwards they were also told to take two tests – one underwater and one on land. You have probably already guessed the results: they did better underwater.

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And the most recent experiment was conducted in 2015 using computers. A group of students had training to do a task on a computer. Then there was a test. During both training and the test some of the students got additional task to count numbers on a monitor. The results show that those students who got this additional task only during the test did very poorly; and those who had to count numbers during the training as well did well.

There have been lot’s of similar experiments over the years starting in 1930, when scientists became interested in this topic. All the results have proved that the surroundings and a person’s state influence how well the information is remembered.

The role of context and state

These experiments all prove that context-dependent memory actually works very well. Context-dependent memory means that you can remember things better if you are in the same context (environment, room, same circle of people) as you were when you got this information.

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Another thing that influences students’ performance is their personal state during learning and testing. This is called state-dependent-memory. If, let’s say, you are well and healthy during the learning but you get ill before your exams and vise versa, your performance probably will not be as good as it could be. The states can be different: you can be hungover, depressed, too excited, sad, nervous, etc. These all are distractions that influence your learning.

Distraction and procrastination are not the same

The concept of positive influence of distractions can be misinterpreted, though. Some of you may think, “well, I can check my social profiles while studying and then do the same during the test and I will do well”.

So, for those of you who thought “Finally, now I have a scientific proof to do nothing”, we have bad news: you cannot simply procrastinate and call it a distraction. If you are, for example, play Angry Birds instead of writing an assignment, it is not good; you need to fight such harmful habits when studying.

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We are talking about positive distractions; the distractions that will help you during your exams. Playing video games or watching movies are definitely not some of those.

Conclusion

So, the universal truth did not change – the distractions are still bad for your studying. It is still better to find some quiet place, to get rid of smartphones and other tempting gadgets and concentrate on your studying completely. The scientists just proved one more time that the context and state of a student makes a difference on their performance.

If you know that you will be distracted by your college mates during the test, better study when you are with friends, for example. Try to create the same or similar conditions that will surround you during your test, and you will do good. And try to be in the same emotional state while both studying and passing your exams –  that should help, as well. And remember that these context and state matters can only be of some help; they will not do the whole job for you. The most important thing remains – knowledge. Study hard and try not to only memorize things but to understand them, as well. That will help you to remember them for years and not only till your exam ends.

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Featured photo credit: Distracted Child Studying via amenclinics.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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