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

Using a large data set of 241 brain-lesion patients, researchers have mapped the location of each patient's lesion and correlated that with each patient's IQ score to produce a map of the brain regions that influence intelligence.

A study of 80 pairs of middle-income Canadian mothers and their year-old babies has revealed that children of mothers who answered their children's requests for help quickly and accurately; talked about their children's preferences, thoughts, and memories during play; and encouraged successful s

A study involving over 1000 older men and women (60-75) with type-2 diabetes has found that those with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood are more likely to have experienced cognitive decline.

Mindfulness Training had a positive effect on both

A new study challenges the popular theory that expertise is simply a product of tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice. Not that anyone is claiming that this practice isn’t necessary — but it may not be sufficient.

A study in which 60 young adult mice were trained on a series of maze exercises designed to challenge and improve their working memory ability (in terms of retaining and using current spatial information), has found that the mice improved their proficiency o

Visual

Pages

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