Does multitasking actually improve your memory?

We tend to assume that the best way to remember stuff is to concentrate on it, with no distractions or interruptions. But one influential theory says the opposite is true — you may actually remember stuff better when you're interrupted in the middle of dealing with it. Find out why the Zeigarnik Effect might mean that multi-taskers have an advantage when it comes to memorizing stuff.

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Soviet academic who matriculated at Berlin University. In 1927 she was studying psychology under her professor, Kurt Lewin. He noticed that, at the cafes and restaurants he went to, waiters tended to remember orders better when the customers hadn't paid yet. Zeigarnik figured that a paid bill was, in the waiter's mind, a completed task. An unpaid bill left something to be done, and that stuck in the brain. Maybe this interruption, and the dangling thread left uncut, were the key to memory. This tendency to recall an unfinished task better than a finished one was called the Zeigarnik Effect.

There are plenty of people who are interested in improving human memory. The Zeigarnik Effect was studied by those interested in learning, in social psychology, in problem-solving, and in business. And some of the studies of the Effect found some interesting new wrinkles. One advertising study had people watch commercials, some of which were cut off in the last five seconds. Researchers found that people remembered the cut-off commercials better, but only if the products were already familiar. Everyone knew the last line of a jingle, and if they didn't hear it, the incident stuck in their brain. On the other hand, if people weren't familiar with the product, the cut-off commercials were forgotten more readily than the complete ones.

Academics also studied the effect. One easy and repeatable experiment had people solve a series of scrambled-word puzzles. After one minute spent on each problem, they were cut off, whether they had successfully completed the puzzle or not. If they didn't solve the puzzle, they were told the solution. At the end, they were asked to recall the solutions. Participants were much more likely to recall the puzzles they couldn't complete than they were the ones that they could.

But is that the Zeigarnik Effect? The notion that people remember their failures better than their successes is a cliche. Another study, which interrupted people doing some word problems but didn't supply answers, found that people were more likely to recall the word problems that hadn't been interrupted than the problems that had been cut short. This variation in results is characteristic of Zeigarnik Effect tests. While there are tests that have shown the effect enhancing memory, others have shown it doing the opposite, and others — even recreations of Zeigarnik's original experiments — have shown little to no effect. Do we recall uncompleted tasks better, or do we do best with a feeling of having accomplished a task?

Tell you what, write to me in a week if you still remember this article, and we can —

Flashcard Image: US Navy

Via WesScholar, Taylor Francis Online, and ACR.