John Gaspar attaches a cap with sensors that can capture the brain's electrical signals related to attention, distraction and suppression.


Scientists discover brain’s anti-distraction system

April 16, 2014

Two SFU psychologists have discovered that our brains have an active suppression mechanism that helps us avoid distraction when we want to focus on a particular item or task.

Their study is the first to identify this mechanism, which they say could revolutionize doctors’ perception and treatment of attention-deficit disorders.

“This is an important discovery for neuroscientists and psychologists because most contemporary ideas of attention highlight brain processes that are involved in picking out relevant objects from the visual field. It’s like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo illustration,” says doctoral student John Gaspar, who made the discovery during his master’s research.

“Our results show clearly that this is only one part of the equation and that active suppression of irrelevant objects is another important part.”

Gaspar and John McDonald, an associate professor of psychology, have published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience.

John McDonald

McDonald, a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, and other scientists first discovered the existence of the specific neural index of suppression in his lab in 2009. But, until now, little was known about how it helps us ignore visual distractions.

Given the proliferation of distracting consumer devices in our technology-driven, fast-paced society, the psychologists say their discovery could help scientists and health care professionals improve treatment for individuals with distraction-related attentional deficits.

“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” notes McDonald, the study’s senior author. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.

“Moreover, disorders associated with attention deficits, such as ADHD and schizophrenia, may turn out to be due to difficulties in suppressing irrelevant objects rather than difficulty selecting relevant ones.”

The researchers are now turning their attention to understanding how we deal with distraction. They’re looking at when and why we can’t suppress potentially distracting objects, whether some of us are better at doing so, and why that is the case.

“There’s evidence that attentional abilities decline with age and that women are better than men at certain visual attentional tasks,” says Gaspar, the study’s first author.

The study was based on three experiments in which 47 students performed an attention-demanding visual search task. Their mean age was 21. The researchers studied their neural processes related to attention, distraction and suppression by recording electrical brain signals from sensors embedded in a cap they wore.

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