Here’s a wake-up call to anyone trying to solve a tricky problem at work, university or school.
Researchers claim that finding solutions and remembering things is much easier if your mobile phone is on silent, because ringtones – and especially catchy songs – drain your brain power.
Scientists at Washington University in St Louis found that students scored up to 25 per cent less on tests after being exposed to ringing mobile phones.
Brain drain: Students exposed to a briefly ringing mobile phone scored 25 per cent worse on a test of material presented before the distraction
The worsts results were posted after hearing a song they knew and liked.
‘Many of us consider a mobile phone ringing in a public place to be an annoying disruption, but this study confirms that these nuisance noises also have real-life impacts,’ lead author Jill Shelton said. ‘These seemingly innocuous events are not only a distraction, but they have a real influence on learning.’
The study included an experiment in which Shelton posed as a student seated in the middle of a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture at Louisiana State University and allowed a mobile phone in her handbag to continue ringing loudly for about 30 seconds.
Students exposed to a briefly ringing cell phone scored 25 per cent worse on a test of material presented before the distraction.
Students tested later scored about 25 per cent worse for recall of course content presented during the distraction, even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and projected as text in a slide show shown throughout the distraction.
Students scored even worse when Shelton added to the disturbance by frantically searching her handbag as if attempting to find and silence her device.
Perhaps most surprising, the study found that unexpected exposure to snippets of a popular song, such as those often used as ringtones, can have an even-longer-lasting negative impact on attention.
Unwelcome distraction: Mobile phone ringtones affect concentration most when they are popular songs, according to the study
In this phase of the experiment, students in a laboratory were tested on simple word-recognition tasks while exposed to a range of auditory distractions, including irrelevant tones, standard mobile phone rings and parts of a song very familiar to most LSU students.
The song, an instrumental version of the LSU fight song composed to support the university’s American Football team, was then being played incessantly.
The song also became a popular mobile phone ringtone.
‘When we played the fight song as part of our lab experiments, the distraction factor lasted longer,’ Shelton said. ‘It slowed down their decision-making performance for a longer time than even a standard ringtone.
‘Depending on how familiar people are with these songs, it could lead to an even worse impairment in their cognitive performance.’
The study raises concerns for people who attempt to concentrate while being bombarded by beeps and buzzes from incoming email or text messages.
Findings suggest the potential for distraction is greater if the ring tone has some special meaning or personal relevance, such as a custom tone that identifies a call as coming from a parent, close friend or boss at work.
On the bright side, students in repeated trials of the experiment eventually were able to block the distracting effects of both standard and song-based cell phone rings, gradually reducing cognitive impairment caused by them.
‘There’s definitely some evidence to suggest that people can become habituated to a distracting noise,’ Shelton added. ‘If you’re in an office where the phones are just ringing all the time every day, it may initially be distracting to you, but you will probably get over it.’
The three-year-old study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and highlighted this week in Men’s Health.