How Being Alone Helps Your Brain

Last Updated May 6, 2011 7:24 AM EDT

Isolation may be underrated. A number of studies are looking at the way our brains function when we're alone compared to how our brains work in social settings. And it seems the ability to form memories may be stronger when we think we're alone.

In a study described in the Boston Globe (but not released yet), Harvard University graduate student Bethany Burum asked pairs of people to spend a few minutes chatting with each other. They then sat back to back, working at separate computer screens. They were shown drawings of a variety of common objects. In some cases, each person in the pair was told they were doing different things. Other couples were told they were doing the same thing. A week later, they were asked to come back and try to remember which drawings they'd seen before.

Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task - namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures - did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.
Burum worked on this study with Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor who's sometimes referred to as Professor Happiness because of his research on the subject. Gilbert and Burum have two theories of why our memories might work better in isolation than with others.
  • Social loafing. A concept called "social loafing" that says that people don't work as hard on something if they know someone else is doing it, too.
  • Multi-tasking against our will. Burum suggests that doing something with someone else is distracting to us no matter how hard we think we're concentrating. At some level, our brains will be wondering how the other person is handling the task and how well they're doing at it. In other words, you're multitasking-thinking about the other person rather than the task at hand--even when you don't know it.
When else might splendid isolation be beneficial? And can you work more of it into your day?
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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.