Some teens can focus better amid distractions

  • Rachel Feltman The Washington Post
  • Monday, October 27, 2014 3:09pm
  • Life

Not everyone is distracted by the “distractions” provided by electronics and social media. In fact, some individuals may get more done when their work atmosphere is full of beeps and buzzes.

Headphones in, Twitter open, cellphones at the ready: That’s how many people, especially teens and young adults, get their work done these days. But while this multi-tasking may strike many as procrastination in disguise, research by a pair of high school seniors in Oregon says that’s not always the case.

Sarayu Caulfield and Alexandra Ulmer are 17 and 18 years old, respectively. But their research, which they’ve worked on as part of their school curriculum for the past four years, got them invited to speak at the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics this month, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In their study, 400 adolescents were tasked with completing basic tests in one of two rooms. The first was free of distractions, but in the second participants were required to listen to music. They were also told that they could do anything they wanted on their phones and computers, and that they should expect an e-mail and quickly answer it.

Unsurprisingly, most people did better in the room where they were allowed to focus on just the testing. But about 15 percent of those tested — those who classified themselves as frequent multi-taskers — actually did better when they had e-mail and music to focus on as well.

Caulfield and Ulmer want to learn why some people seem adapted to this high-frequency attention-switching. They believe that some adolescent brains may be developing differently to cope with all the new stimuli of the digital world.

They’re not alone: The young women were initially guided in their experiments by Clifford Nass, a now-deceased Stanford professor who published a similar but smaller study in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their findings can’t actually tell us anything about brain development yet, but they hint at just how little we know about the human brain — and how our modern experiences are shaping it.

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