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.
(2013).  Top-Down Regulation of Default Mode Activity in Spatial Visual Attention.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 33(15), 6444 - 6453.