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.