Attention and the brain’s anti-distraction mechanism

Posted on May 15, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at a recent study that shows the brain has a built-in anti-distraction mechanism, which assists us in maintaining focus.

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Where's Waldo?

Where’s Waldo?

 

 

New research

Something as simple as picking out a face in the crowd is actually quite a complicated task: Your brain has to retrieve the memory of the face you’re seeking, then hold it in place while scanning the crowd, paying special attention to finding a match.

This type of attention is known as object-based attention, something scientists know much less about than spatial attention, which involves focusing on what’s happening in a particular location. However, new findings suggest that these two types of attention have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions, says Robert Desimone, the director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the paper.

“The interactions are surprisingly similar to those seen in spatial attention,” Desimone says. “It seems like it’s a parallel process involving different areas.”

In both cases, the prefrontal cortex — the control center for most cognitive functions — appears to take charge of the brain’s attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. For spatial attention, that involves regions of the visual cortex that map to a particular area within the visual field.

Another study, undertaken by John Gaspar and John McDonald from the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, learned that to find objects of interest in a cluttered and continually changing visual environment, humans must often ignore salient stimuli that are not currently relevant to the task at hand.

“This is an important discovery for neuroscientists and psychologists because most contemporary ideas of attention highlight brain processes that are involved in picking out relevant objects from the visual field. It’s like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo illustration.” said Gaspar.

Gaspar continued: “Our results show clearly that this is only one part of the equation and that active suppression of the irrelevant objects is another important part.”

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved 47 students carrying out a visual search task while their brain signals were monitored.

 

Why this is relevant

Because of the increase in distracting consumer devices in our technology-driven, fast-paced society, the psychologists say their discovery could help scientists and clinicians better treat patients with distraction-related attention deficits.

“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” notes senior author McDonald. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.”

The researchers are now studying how we deal with distraction. They’re looking at when and why we can’t suppress potentially distracting objects, and why some of us are better at this than others.

Ultimately, the goal is to find ways of sustaining attention longer. By accepting that distractions are a part of everyday working life and trusting in the brain’s built-in system to focus selectively by ignoring irrelevant details, we can become skilled in brushing away interruptions when they intrude. By developing attentional intelligence – paying attention on purpose – we can generate brain wave patterns that strengthen the sustained concentration involved in focused attention.

As Jeffrey Schwartz, one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity and co-founder of the neuroleadership field, says in The Mind and the Brain:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

 

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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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