Brief diversions vastly improve focus

March, 2011

A new study suggests we lose focus because of habituation, and we can ‘reset’ our attention by briefly switching to another task before returning.

We’ve all experienced the fading of our ability to concentrate when we’ve been focused on a task for too long. The dominant theory of why this should be so has been around for half a century, and describes attention as a limited resource that gets ‘used up’. Well, attention is assuredly a limited resource in the sense that you only have so much of it to apply. But is it limited in the sense of being used up and needing to refresh? A new study indicates that it isn’t.

The researchers make what strikes me as a cogent argument: attention is an endless resource; we are always paying attention to something. The problem is our ability to maintain attention on a single task without respite. Articulated like this, we are immediately struck by the parallel with perception. Any smell, touch, sight, sound, that remains constant eventually stops registering with us. We become habituated to it. Is that what’s happening with attention? Is it a form of habituation?

In an experimental study, 84 volunteers were tested on their ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for 50 minutes under various conditions: one group had no breaks or distractions; two groups memorized four digits beforehand and were told to respond if they saw them on the screen during the task (but only one group were shown them during the task); one group were shown the digits but told to ignore them if they saw them.

As expected, performance declined significantly over the course of the task for most participants — with the exception of those who were twice shown the memorized digits and had to respond to them. That was all it took, a very brief break in the task, and their focus was maintained.

The finding suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance, but briefly deactivating and reactivating your goals is all you need to stay focused.

Reference: 

Related News

A small study shows how those on the road to Alzheimer’s show early semantic problems long before memory problems arise, and that such problems can affect daily life.

In my last report, I discussed a finding that intensive foreign language learning ‘grew’ the size of certain brain regions. This growth reflects gray matter increase.

A small Swedish brain imaging study adds to the evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language by investigating the brain changes in students undergoing a highly intensive language course.

Stress is a major cause of workplace accidents, and most of us are only too familiar with the effects of acute stress on our thinking. However, although the cognitive effects are only too clear, research has had little understanding of how stress has this effect.

We know that stress has a complicated relationship with learning, but in general its effect is negative, and part of that is due to stress producing anxious thoughts that clog up

Memory problems in those with mild cognitive impairment may begin with problems in visual discrimination and vulnerability to interference — a hopeful discovery in that interventions to improve discriminability and reduce interference may have a flow-on effect to cognition.

Here’s an exciting little study, implying as it does that one particular aspect of information processing underlies much of the cognitive decline in older adults, and that this can be improved through training.

I’ve reported, often, on the evidence that multitasking is a problem, something we’re not really designed to do well (with the exception of a few fortunate individuals), and that the problem is r

What underlies differences in fluid intelligence? How are smart brains different from those that are merely ‘average’?

Back in 2009, I reported briefly on a large Norwegian study that found that older adults who consumed chocolate, wine, and tea performed significantly better on cognitive tests.

Pages

Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health newsSubscribe to Latest news