Mere threat of electronic interruptions may actually sharpen brainpower, study says

Yes, electronic devices distract and dull our minds, but awareness of this may also help focus us as well.

Interruptions -- the kind that come from smartphones, texts, instant messaging, and all other sorts of multi-tasking -- are usurping our brainpower, simple as that. But, ironically, the very presence of these electronic resources may also help better focus our mental energies.

Photo credit: Joe McKendrick

That's the gist of a new article by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson in The New York Times. They cite a recent study they helped engage with Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab, which attempted to measure the impact of electronic interruptions on mental clarity. Professor Alessandro Acquisti and psychologist Eyal Peer, both with Carnegie Mellon, conducted the study.

In the study of 136 subjects, the researchers created three test groups, each of which was asked to complete a standard cognitive skill test:

  • The first group (control group) completed the test with no interruptions;
  • the second group (interrupted group) was informed they may be interrupted, and did receive instant messages while they were completing the exercise; and
  • the third group (on-high-alert group) was also informed they may be interrupted; but ultimately were not.

The results? Predictably, the group which was interrupted with text messages had worse test scores than the uninterrupted control group. Their scores were 20 percent lower than that of the first group.

But the group that was informed there would be an interruption but never received any instant messages -- the third "on-high-alert" group -- did far better than the control group -- their average scores were 43 percent better.  The mere threat of interruptions seemed to have kept their focus more sharpened.

Here is Dr. Peer's explanation:

"Somehow, it seems, they marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruption served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better."

The key takeaway here is that allowing ourselves to be sucked into the constant flow of messaging from various electronic and digital sources may be breaking our ability to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

However, the ability to temporarily seal ourselves off from such interruptions, while accepting that interruptions are inevitable, has the opposite effect. Sullivan and Thompson admit that further study is needed, but it makes a lot of sense -- kind of like doing your best work under pressure. Maybe the awareness that we're about to be interrupted is just the built-in pressure we need to focus.

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