Adults suffer a summer brain drain just like kids

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 16, 2013 - 9:58 AM

Distracted adults suffer from a different kind of seasonal affective disorder.


There’s strong evidence that children suffer from summer brain drain.

Come September, Jenny’s vocabulary and Johnny’s understanding of trapezoids will have atrophied a bit. Most students need weeks — if not months — to relearn some of what they knew in early June, studies show.

Turns out we adults suffer our own, more abbreviated version of brain drain. Call it cognition attrition or, for “Star Trek” fans, a mind melt.

Discombobulated by vacations, assailed by distractions, we forget when the kids are supposed to be at swimming lessons, we become less deft at finishing reports, we struggle to pay attention at meetings. It might be sunny outside, but our heads are in the clouds.

“If you’re lucky enough to have an office window,” said Diane Amundson, a Winona-based workplace productivity engineer, “you need to not look out it.”

Amundson cited three primary distractions: vacation, the kids being at home and — especially for those of us with prolonged winters — nice weather.

These factors wreak havoc on our work-life balance, said Naomi Pelley, regional director for the health management firm HealthFitness.

“It’s usually not brain drain, but schedule and distractions,” Pelley said. “We could say the same thing at Christmastime.”

Those distractions tend to take a higher toll on parents, Amundson said, especially with kids who are just old enough to be left at home.

“You get the phone call, ‘Mom, she looked at me,’ and you have that whole mental piece of kids being at home,” she said. “It has to have an effect.”

The uptick in vacations also creates a chain reaction.

“Often other people being on vacation works as a bottleneck to what you’re doing,” Amundson said. “You need a paper from Bob and you can’t get it, so you can’t finish this report for Cindy.”

Slide diminishes with age

A survey in 2011 found that just over a quarter of 2,600 hiring managers in the country think workers are less productive in the summer. But Pelley said there is little to no scientific research showing worker productivity dropping in the summer, just surveys.

The effects on our offspring, however, have been thoroughly recorded.

“Summer slide … is pretty well documented across the board” among elementary and high school students, said Scott McConnell, a University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology. He cited a knowledge baseline “that goes up from September to June and then dips and starts a little bit lower in September.”

That has spawned talk of all-year academic programs and “an ongoing discussion about summer,” McConnell said, especially around literacy. But he added that most research indicates that the issue diminishes as children age.

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