Brief diversions boost our ability to focus

February 10th, 2011 - 3:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 10 (IANS) Even brief diversions from a task can dramatically boost one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.The study zeroes in on a phenomenon known to anyone who’s ever had trouble doing the same task for a long time — after a while, you begin to lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

Some researchers believe this “vigilance decrement”, as they describe it, is the result of a drop in one’s “attentional resources”, said University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who led the study, the journal Cognition reports.

“You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” he said. “But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem,” Lleras added, according to a Illinois University statement.

Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception. The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time.

For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes “habituated” to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.

“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness,” Lleras said.

“So I thought, well, if there’s some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts.”

“If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind!”

These findings are based on 84 participants whose ability to focus Lleras and post-doctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested under various conditions.

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