From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Back to Work: Learning, Memory and Cognitive Function

Now that the North American Labor Day holiday has passed, and all of the northern climates begin to transition to the fall season, it’s time for many of us to get back to work or school. It seemed like July and August were filled with summer vacations and project delays, but now that September has arrived everyone is back to work and more focused. Many of us are now knowledge workers and this means we need to re-engage our brains. Here is a collection of tips and research findings to help you perform at your best:

Multi-tasking doesn’t work.  Stanford University researchers found that people confronted with concurrent streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one task to another as quickly as those who complete one task at a time. This research was summarized in an earlier Ergonomics Today™ article: Researchers Take Multitasking to Task. The study involved 100 students and a series of three tests. They found that cognitive function slowed considerably when they juggled multiple forms of media including text messaging, web browsing, television, and an array of assignments. The Stanford University researchers concluded that they would perform better on the assignments if they were doing less.

Adequate Sleep Improves Performance. A recent New York Times article, How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?, says that the average American gets 6.9 hours of sleep most weeknights. This is not enough.

  • Test subjects who slept 8 to 9 hours per night maintained high psychomotor performance over a two week test period.
  • Subjects who slept 7 hours showed decreased performance that stabilized at a new lower level after a few days. 
  • Subjects who slept 6 or few hours showed steady declines in recognizing and responding to the test stimulus. Over the two weeks of 6 or fewer hours of sleep their impairment ended up as bad as someone who is legally intoxicated.  Other sleep-related studies have shown improved memory recall with adequate sleep.

We don’t pay attention to boring things, and 90% of what we learn is forgotten within 30 days. In his excellent book, Brain Rules, Developmental Biologist John Medina suggests some strategies for enhancing learning.

  • First, for you educators and trainers — we only have a 10 minute attention span. We need a new concept, topic, or attention grabber every 10 minutes. Spend 1-minute explaining the concept and then 2 to 10-minutes going into detail.
  • For you learners:
    • Don’t try to memorize something you don’t understand- try to give each new concept some real meaning and real examples.
    • Repeat to remember- learning and recall are maximized with repeated exposure over fixed intervals of time. Several short study sessions spread over a full week is more effective than one big cram session.

Physical Activity is Cognitive Candy. According to Brain Rules, Physical activity stimulates BDNF—Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor which acts like fertilizer and helps new neurons grow. Activity also stimulates blood flow which feeds the brain, removes free radicals from the body and increases the number and size of arteries. The brain is only 2% of body weight but is responsible for up to 20% of metabolism. From an evolutionary perspective, we are wimpy animals with powerful brains and our brains require lots of oxygen and blood flow which comes from movement of the legs.

Gene Kay has a Masters degree in Exercise Science and is a Certified Ergonomics Associate. He has been designing web-based ergonomics programs for 10 years, and owns the ErgoAdvocate Ergonomics Training program.  Gene has served as the American Express Global Ergonomics Manager, a Rehab Services Manager, and is Past-President of the Upper Midwest Chapter of HFES.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2011-09-07.