Researchers from Simon Fraser University have discovered that environmental and/or genetic factors may hinder or suppress a particular brain activity that helps prevent us from distraction. The discovery could revolutionize doctors’ perception and treatment of attention-deficit disorders.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to reveal that our brains rely on an active suppression mechanism to avoid being distracted by irrelevant information when we want to focus on a particular item or task.
John McDonald Ph.D, an associate professor of psychology and Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, and other scientists first discovered the existence of the mechanism in his lab in 2009. But, until now, it was still unknown how it helps us ignore visual distractions.
The study involved three experiments in which 47 students (mean age of 21) performed an attention-demanding visual search task. The researchers studied their neural processes related to attention, distraction, and suppression by recording electrical brain signals from sensors embedded in a cap.
“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 John Gaspar, the study’s lead author.
“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.”
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.”
“Moreover, disorders associated with attention deficits, such asattention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia, may turn out to be due to difficulties in suppressing irrelevant objects rather than difficulty selecting relevant ones.”
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.
“There’s evidence that attentional abilities decline with age and that women are better than men at certain visual attentional tasks,” said Gaspar, the study’s first author.