A new study challenges the idea that distraction is necessarily a problem while learning.
Researchers at Brown University in the US have found that as long as our attention is as divided when we have to recall a motor skill as it was when we learned it, we will do just fine.
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, 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,” said lead researcher Joo-Hyun Song, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.
The underlying assumption people have is that divided attention is bad, meaning if you divide your attention, your performance should get worse.
“But learning has a later, skill-retrieval part. People have not studied what is the role of divided attention in memory recall later,” Song added.
Song is continuing to study the effects of attention on learning.
“Another task is to figure out what might be going on in the brain to allow divided attention to be a boost for recall, rather than a hindrance for learning,” Song said.
Song said she is curious to know whether understanding the effect could improve rehabilitation.
“It may be better, for instance, to help patients learn to walk not only in the clinic but amid the degree of distraction they would encounter on their neighbourhood sidewalk,” she said
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.