Why it's hard to stay on task


Why do we find it so hard to stay on task for long? A recent study uses a new technique to show how the task control network and the default mode network interact (and fight each other for control).

The task control network (which includes the dorsal anterior cingulate and bilateral anterior insula) regulates attention to surroundings, controlling your concentration on tasks. The default mode network, on the other hand, becomes active when a person seems to be doing 'nothing', and becomes less active when a task is being performed.

The study shows that we work better and faster the better the default mode network is suppressed by the task control network. However, when the default mode network is not sufficiently suppressed by the task control network, it sends signals to the task control network, interfering with its performance (and we lose focus).

Interestingly, in certain conditions, such as autism, depression, and mild cognitive impairment, the default mode network remains unchanged whether the person is performing a task or interacting with the environment. Additionally, deficits in the functioning of the default mode network have been implicated in age-related cognitive decline.

The findings add a new perspective to our ideas about attention. One of the ongoing questions concerns the relative importance of the two main aspects of attention: focus, and resisting distraction. A lot of work in recent years has indicated that a large part of age-related cognitive decline is a growing difficulty in resisting distraction. Similarly, there is some evidence that people with a low working memory capacity are less able to ignore irrelevant information.

This recent finding, then, suggests that these difficulties in ignoring distracting / irrelevant stimuli reflect the failure of the task control network to adequately suppress the activity of the default mode network. This puts the emphasis back on training for focus, and may help explain why meditation practices are effective in improving concentration.


[3384] Wen X, Liu Y, Yao L, Ding M. Top-Down Regulation of Default Mode Activity in Spatial Visual Attention. The Journal of Neuroscience [Internet]. 2013 ;33(15):6444 - 6453. Available from: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/15/6444

Related News

A Canadian study involving French-speaking university students has found that repeating aloud, especially to another person, improves memory for words.

We know that the

Four studies involving a total of more than 300 younger adults (20-24) have looked at information processing on different forms of media.

A sleep study involving 28 participants had them follow a controlled sleep/wake schedule for three weeks before staying in a sleep laboratory for 4.5 days, during which time they experienced a cycle of sleep deprivation and recovery in the absence of seasonal cues such as natural light, time inf

A study involving 218 participants aged 18-88 has looked at the effects of age on the brain activity of participants viewing an edited version of a 1961 Hitchcock TV episode (given that participants viewed the movie while in a MRI machine, the 25 minute episode was condensed to 8 minutes).

I've written at length about implementation plans in my book “Planning to Remember: How to Remember What You're Doing and What You Plan to Do”.

In 2013 I reported briefly on a pilot study showing that “super-agers” — those over 80 years old who have the brains and cognitive powers more typical of people decades younger — had an unusually large

A recent study reveals that when we focus on searching for something, regions across the brain are pulled into the search. The study sheds light on how attention works.

As many of you will know, I like nature-improves-mind stories.

Another study looking into the urban-nature effect issue takes a different tack than those I’ve previously reported on, that look at the attention-refreshing benefits of natural environments.


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health news