If you play close attention to the way you process things, you’ll notice that it is somewhat difficult paying attention to more than one thing at a time. I have had awkward moments when two friends are simultaneously speaking to me about very different things, and it is extremely difficult to keep up with what they’re saying.
Or, have you noticed that when you’re reading a textbook while daydreaming or thinking of something else, by the time you’re done, you have no idea what you just read? I am sure it has happened to some (if not all) of you at some point.
Evidence that dividing your attention between two things at once came cause a decrease in performance comes from several places (for the sake of brevity I will not go into much detail; I will, however, provide citations in case the reader wants to follow up on these studies): For example, Levy, Pashler, and Boer (2006) demonstrated that when a person is asked to perform a task (respond if they heard either one or two tones) while driving, their brake response time increased. Similarly, researchers have found that people talking on hands-free cell phones take longer to brake than people driving without distractions (Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003). Of course, keep in mind that these difference are not HUGE; but when driving, a two-second reaction can be all that’s needed to prevent an accident.
Studying with background music
So, with this in mind, can we say that studying with background music is a good idea? It turns out the answer depends on your personality—on whether you are an extrovert or an introvert. Extroverts tend to do about the same in memory tasks, whether they have background music or not; introverts, however, tend to do poorer in these same memory tasks when background music is playing (Furnham & Bradley, 1997).
As you guys have seen, we do better when focusing our attention at one thing at a time (this is called Selective Attention), instead of dividing our attention to many things at once. It may seem like a small thing, but studying without distractions will serve your memory better than studying in a noisy place, especially if you’re an introvert.
Furnham, A. & Bradley, A. (1997). Music while you work: The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extroverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11(5). 445-455.
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