While some people can boast better memories than others, a University professor recently found that sounds irrelevant to one’s task can deter even the sharpest memory from performing at its best.
Psychology Professor Emily Elliott conducted several research studies to test how distractions affect cognitive memory in children and adults.
The experiment presented University psychology students and second graders from local schools with a sequence of words on a computer screen and asked them to remember them in order.
Headphones emitted spoken words at the same time that a list of different words appeared on the screen.
“When you add sounds, it makes it a lot harder,” Elliott said.
Psychology doctoral student Alicia Briganti said the research stemmed from a German study that found low frequency, or seldom-used words, disrupted participants worse than high frequency and often-used words did.
But when Elliott and Briganti conducted a similar experiment, Briganti said it made no difference — both high and low frequency words distracted participants. Briganti said they are not sure why this difference occurred.
Elliott said adults show an average of 10 percent reduction in performance when there is a sound, while children show a 20 to 30 percent decrease in performance. She said the gap between performance with sounds and performance with silence lengthens in children, showing that children are more easily distracted.
Elliott said they initially thought people with good memories would excel in the study, but that proved to not necessarily be true.
“People range from improving their performance [with sounds] to no change to just getting wiped out,” Elliott said.
Briganti said overall, the study allowed them to look at the effects of distractions on thinking, memory and cognitive performance.
She said some college students study while listening to music or go to a coffee shop to do homework, but they may be so used to these methods that they do not realize the effects.
“People think it’s not disruptive, but if you look at their performance, it is,” Briganti said.
A research study done in 1997 at another university asked participants after the study if they believed their performance worsened with distractions. Many said no, but their performance had actually been hindered by disruptions, Briganti said.
When it comes to working or studying, Briganti suggested wearing earplugs in noisy places or studying somewhere quiet, like a library.
Briganti said she is now researching how the time of day when a cognitive task is attempted affects memory. Some people call themselves morning people, while others work best at night, she said. She is working to find whether those who perform best in the morning get distracted more easily at night rather than during the day and vice versa.