The Uses of Distraction

As a language teacher, I’ve noticed that learners of a new language pick up more of the target language when they are concentrating on some other activity that distracts them with physical movement. I learned quite a bit of French during tennis lessons when my husband and I moved to Clermont-Ferrand years ago. I’m still a rotten tennis player, but the French has stuck and even evolved.

Focused physical activity seems to lower the resistance to learning a new cognitive set of rules. In turn, the distraction provided by the new cognitive target could motivate the learner to perform sustained physical exercise with health giving benefits. How about that? A two way street.

I’ve begun to play Mahjong Solitaire (on a screen) while walking on the elliptical strider at the gym. Somehow it is helpful to my concentration if I am doing some other movement (like plodding on the treadmill) and not giving all my attention to figuring out Mahjong strategy. At the same time, my tolerance for working up a sweat and “going for the burn” is normally limited to 10-12 minutes before I start thinking about what else is on my “to do” list…yes, yes, I know about 30 minutes a day and 10,000 steps etc.

However! I have now won five medium level games, two of them yesterday, and I was so focused on clearing those tiles off the screen that I strode like the devil for 60 minutes! That is motivating on two levels….one of which is that I burned over 400 calories. The other level involves paying attention, remembering which tiles I have eliminated and calculating the best next move. It also improves eye-hand coordination because, to tap the screen, I have to take my hand off the vertical handlebar which is moving back and forth and occasionally bangs me in the forehead. I’m getting better at ducking without breaking stride.

Maybe the endorphins of the exercise help me concentrate. Anyhow, it’s a moment I look forward to and I’m working on a rap poem about it, entitled “Me ‘n Mah Jong”. Stay tuned.

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