When We Need Apps Like "Smart Silence"

During Sunday Mass, one can still hear this announcement at the beginning, "Please silence your cellphones". Almost everyone, except me, has a smart phone nowadays. And to those who are fortunate enough to have a smart phone, here is an application from Waylon Brown:

Smart Silence: SIlent Scheduler, Developer: Waylon Brown
With the two previous posts in this blog, "Switching Tasks: Major Difference between Young Children and Adults" and "Multitasking Is Possible, But Difficult with Learning", the above just maybe the application for any student. Really? Yes, really.

With too many distractions, task switching becomes a real burden to any brain. Reading a book to learn is already a challenging task for a mind. It sometimes takes effort just to begin studying. Being interrupted means additional work. One has to find oneself back to where the distraction occurs, requiring another step of familiarization. Without focus, a brain activity simply requires longer times. The studies cited in the above previous posts in this blog all point to the fact that switching tasks slow down the brain. The additional task of switching and familiarization exact from the brain not just time, but also energy. How many of the text messages, posts on Facebook, or phone conversations, are really of critical thinking and academic language? These distractions not only take a student away from the learning task at hand, but also deals with an entirely different universe, different rules, different vocabulary. Alternating between different worlds is like alternating between different languages. It is not only confusing but also tiring. The brain wears down and makes mistakes. Memory is likewise sacrificed during switching tasks. Committing something to one's mind during learning is a delicate process that requires undivided attention. Try memorizing someone's phone number while someone recites numbers randomly. Distraction works against memory. Students who open their laptops during class to check their emails or Facebook account, or do some online shopping, should be also made aware that they not only distract themselves, but also those who are seated near them, who just happen to have their eyes on the screen. This alone distracts other students, preventing them from paying full attention to a lecture. All of these have some physical basis as suggested by a 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, "Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction" (by Karin Foerde, Barbara J. Knowlton, and Russell A. Poldrack) :
Different forms of learning and memory depend on functionally and anatomically separable neural circuits [Squire, L. R. (1992) Psychol. Rev. 99, 195–231]. Declarative memory relies on a medial temporal lobe system, whereas habit learning relies on the striatum [Cohen, N. J. & Eichenbaum, H. (1993) Memory, Amnesia, and the Hippocampal System (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA)]. How these systems are engaged to optimize learning and behavior is not clear. Here, we present results from functional neuroimaging showing that the presence of a demanding secondary task during learning modulates the degree to which subjects solve a problem using either declarative memory or habit learning. Dual-task conditions did not reduce accuracy but reduced the amount of declarative learning about the task. Medial temporal lobe activity was correlated with task performance and declarative knowledge after learning under single-task conditions, whereas performance was correlated with striatal activity after dual-task learning conditions. These results demonstrate a fundamental difference in these memory systems in their sensitivity to concurrent distraction. The results are consistent with the notion that declarative and habit learning compete to mediate task performance, and they suggest that the presence of distraction can bias this competition. These results have implications for learning in multitask situations, suggesting that, even if distraction does not decrease the overall level of learning, it can result in the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied less flexibly in new situations.

If the above is not adequate for us to pause, here is another study from the same journal that says those who think they can in fact multitask may actually be sacrificing performance on the primary task. The article, "Cognitive control in media multitaskers" (by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony D. Wagner), has the following abstract:
Chronic media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous, although processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition. A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.
As in every beginning of a mass when we are told to silence our phones, we must do the same for learning. Reading emails, going to Facebook, sending and receiving text messages, having phone conversations are not different from watching television. These take our time and attention. One may not be able to ignore these. The digital world of Facebook, for instance, is social. No one wants to be left out. Thus, the answer is scheduling. There should be a time for Facebook, there should be a time for sending and receiving texts, and there should be a time for learning. The app by Waylon Brown may just be necessary.