Scientists discover brain's method of suppressing distractions
Psychologists at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have identified certain brain mechanisms humans use to avoid distractions, which researchers say may “revolutionize” the way in which doctors treat attention-deficit disorders.
The discovery was made by John Gaspar—a doctoral student of associate professor of psychology and Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience John McDonald—during his master’s thesis research. As part of his research, Gaspar analyzed the performance of 47 students with an average age of 21 as they performed an attention-demanding visual search task—similar to playing Where’s Waldo. Researchers recorded the participants’ electrical brain signals, which provided data related to attention, distraction and suppression.
Gaspar found that when the students tried to focus on the task at hand, their brains helped them avoid distractions from irrelevant information by relying on a specific active suppression mechanism. This study is the first to reveal such findings--previous research has mostly focused on how the brain helps us pick out relevant information but not how it suppresses irrelevant material.
The study’s findings—published in the Journal of Neuroscience and authored by Gaspar and McDonald—may have important implications for people with attention deficits, such as ADHD and schizophrenia. The researchers said that they now plan to examine factors that may inhibit people from suppressing distracting objects and information.