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Surprising Science

Do Interruptions Zap Our Brain Power? Yes. A Lot of It.

Interruptions during work cost us precious mental resources, according to a new study out of Carnegie Mellon. The effects of distraction, in theory, are enough to drop students one letter grade.

What’s the Latest Development?

To test whether interruptions like email and text messages come at the expense of getting good work done, scientists at Carnegie Mellon designed an experiment. In the experiment, there were three groups of people assigned to a task: One was told they would not be interrupted (and weren’t), another was told they would be interrupted (and weren’t), and the third was told they would be interrupted (and were). The study found that “the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent).”

What’s the Big Idea?

Counter-intuitively, the group who were told they would be interrupted but weren’t, a group the study called the On High Alert group, improved their score on the task by 43 percent over the course of two trials. They even outperformed those who were left alone without interruption. Dr. Eyal Peer, who designed the experiment, believes participants learned from their experience and their brains adapted. “Somehow, it seems, they marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruptions served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better.”

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Read it at the New York Times


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