Distracted? Tell Your Brain What To Ignore

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Focus_slideIllustrated By Sydney Hass.
When it comes to Mondays, we're with Garfield. There's something about the start of the week that throws a wrench in our usually focused, productive work habits. Despite our good intentions, there's always some new distraction (read: funny corgi video) that just can't possibly wait until later. But, what if focus and concentration were as simple as flipping a switch in your brain?

Such a sci-fi quick fix may not yet exist, but a new study suggests we're well on our way. Psychologists at Simon Fraser University claim to have made a key discovery about how our brains focus. In a study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, 56 undergrads participated in three experiments designed to challenge their focus. During each experiment, researchers presented the students with a series of red, yellow, and green shapes. They instructed the participants to be on the lookout for a specific color or shape — for example, a green diamond — and to ignore the others. Researchers then measured subjects' brain waves to see how their brains responded to distracting stimuli (i.e. the shapes they had been instructed to ignore).

Historically, prevailing wisdom has held that our brains perceive our surroundings as a whole, picking out elements that require our attention (like reading Where's Waldo?). But, this study showed the reverse: Researchers found that respondents' brains actively suppressed perceptions of the distracting stimuli, rather than highlighting the shapes they were supposed to notice.

More research is needed to determine exactly what factors help our brains shut out distractions. Still, this new discovery could change the way we treat attention disorders — not to mention cases of "the Mondays."