Managing distractions: How your brain keeps you focused

Paying attention seems to be getting harder and harder these days, primarily because we are subjected to so many distractions. The physiological process we use to stay on task involves using our pre-frontal cortex and is highly complex, because in order to focus the brain has to know what else to ignore.

And that has been part of the problem because our technology has been designed to keep grabbing our attention and it takes a lot of effort to suppress all those other irrelevant signals.

New research by Gaspar and MacDonald in Canada and published in the Journal of Neuroscience is the first study to identify how our brains have an active anti-distraction mechanism that helps us to pay attention to our chosen task.

The existence of this mechanism has been known about since 2009 but it is only now that the scientists have started to understand how it works.

Gaspar reports that our ability to pick out relevant objects from our field of vision are "like finding Waldo in Where's Waldo?" and form only part of the equation for paying attention. It is the active suppression of irrelevant objects that is another important component.

The suggestion is that environmental and or genetic factors may either work to help or hinder this specific brain activity. This is very useful as it means it may lead to more effective treatment of attention deficit disorders as well as a means of help for those of us suffering from a surfeit of distraction in our busy lives.

J. M. Gaspar, J. J. McDonald. Suppression of Salient Objects Prevents Distraction in Visual Search. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (16): 5658 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4161-13.2014