Watch out! How does the brain stay focused?

While you are concentrating on your book, totally engrossed in the story, so much so that you could almost see the setting and the characters with your own eyes, somebody suddenly brings you back to reality: your children are fighting in the next room; your partner speaks to you and your telephones starts to vibrate in your pocket. You know what it is to be distracted, don't you?

And yet, your brain appears to have its own "anti-distraction" system as observed by John McDonald and John Gaspard, professor and doctoral student in psychology at the University of Vancouver. While previous studies showed that the ability not to be distracted by disturbances depended on the level of the ability to control one's attention, these two scientists tried to find out whether this ability is possible by suppressing distracting information or by concentrating more intensively on the activity. Let's look at a concrete example. You are reading a book in a noisy environment, but you are still able to remain focused. If you were in the place of the researchers conducting the study, would you wonder whether you remain focused because your brain suppresses sound coming to it or whether your attention on what you're reading is overriding the noise?

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience needed 47 volunteers aged on average 21 years, who had to carry out a visual search task, requiring a high degree of concentration. At the same time, the researchers recorded the neuronal activity of the subjects using sensors incorporated into a helmet. The electronic activity measured corresponded to the processes of attention, distraction and repression of distraction.

By measuring the time taken by the subjects to find the target, they noticed that this time was suddenly shorter if the target was a distracting element, suggesting the existence of a mechanism that suppressed visual elements that stood out but that were not relevant.

According to the University of Vancouver, "It's the first study that reveals that our brain relies on an active suppression mechanism the aim of which is to prevent us from being distracted by non-pertinent information when we are focused on a particular idea or task".
Researchers hope that these results will help us to avoid being distracted in cases where it would be dangerous to do so, such as when driving, or if suffering from an attention disorder as in certain psychiatric conditions.
Source: Gaspard et al. Suppression of salient objects prevents distraction in visual search. Journal of Neuroscience, April 16, 2014. 34(16):5658-66. doi : 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4161-13.2014

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