A few weeks back SuperScholar featured a piece by Baylor neuroscientist Matthew Stanford on how students can keep their brains healthy. One is to limit electronic media. The New York Times has an interesting piece on this. Multitasking with electronic media can certainly be fun — often a lot more fun than reading a book or doing homework — but it also activates the reward centers in your brain that put a premium on instant gratification and can deaden our ability to maintain sustained attention on a single task, whose completion may not yield any immediate rewards. The whole article is worth reading, but here’s an interesting study cited. It compares television to electronic gaming and finds the latter more disruptive of sleep and school learning:

Some neuroscientists have … begun to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.

In an experiment at the German Sport University in Cologne in 2007, boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games after they finished homework.

On alternate nights, the boys spent an hour watching an exciting movie, like “Harry Potter” or “Star Trek,” rather than playing video games. That allowed the researchers to compare the effect of video games and TV.

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Markus Dworak, a researcher who led the study and is now a neuroscientist at Harvard, said it was not clear whether the boys’ learning suffered because sleep was disrupted or, as he speculates, also because the intensity of the game experience overrode the brain’s recording of the vocabulary.

“When you look at vocabulary and look at huge stimulus after that, your brain has to decide which information to store,” he said. “Your brain might favor the emotionally stimulating information over the vocabulary.”