Issue 9 of Your Learning Brain
Imagine you were reading something while the television was blasting away in the background. How well do you think you’d remember what you were reading? How about when someone is talking to you at the same time as you’re trying to memorize a piece of information? Do you think you could focus?
Fact 1: Background speech has physiological effects.
Researchers call this “the irrelevant speech effect” and it refers to the finding that performance on serial recall tasks is lower when irrelevant background speech is present. Researchers Jens Gisselgård, Karl Magnus Petersson and Martin Ingvar published several studies about the consequences that this has on the working memory. Irrelevant speech impairs the immediate serial recall of information that is presented visually.
Physiologically, the irrelevant speech effect is associated with a relative decrease of blood flow in cortical regions responsible for the verbal working memory, in particular the superior temporal cortex. Researchers found that the areas that are sensitive to the irrelevant speech effect are also activated by the verbal working memory task itself.
Fact 2: Music with lyrics won’t help you study either.
If you’re in the habit of listening to music while you’re studying, you should probably be aware of the fact that not all types music will help you retain more. When performing tasks that involve serial recall (when participants have to remember or perform tasks in a certain order, for example solving an equation), the recall is impaired by most types of music due to the acoustic variation. That’s because we can focus better at moderate levels of arousal.
On the other hand, listening to songs with lyrics is more likely to interfere with tasks that involve semantics – such as reading comprehension. At fault is the increased cognitive load due to both tasks following the same processes in the brain.