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How does the brain focus with so many distractions?

A groundbreaking study by Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science sheds light on how individuals navigate the challenge of maintaining focus in noisy environments, such as a bustling restaurant. 

The research delves into the intricacies of the brain’s ability to concentrate amidst distractions and identifies key mechanisms that enable or hinder attention.

Aspects of focus in the brain

Previously, a psychological study by the same team established that individuals possess distinct capabilities to enhance focus on relevant information and to filter out distractions. The latest study explores how the brain orchestrates these two essential aspects of attention.

Coordinating multiple forms of attention 

Lead author Harrison Ritz, who conducted the study as a PhD student at Brown and is currently a neuroscientist at Princeton University, draws an analogy between this mental coordination and the physical coordination involved in tasks like using chopsticks, which require the simultaneous control of over 50 muscles. 

“In the same way that we bring together more than 50 muscles to perform a physical task like using chopsticks, our study found that we can coordinate multiple different forms of attention in order to perform acts of mental dexterity,” he explained.

Tremendous cognitive flexibility 

Study co-author Amitai Shenhav is an associate professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences. 

“These findings can help us understand how we as humans are able to exhibit such tremendous cognitive flexibility – to pay attention to what we want, when we want to,” said Professor Shenhav.

“They can also help us better understand limitations on that flexibility, and how limitations might manifest in certain attention-related disorders such as ADHD.”

Focusing and filtering information

To investigate these mechanisms, Ritz conducted an fMRI study involving participants engaging in a cognitive task that required them to differentiate between swirling masses of colored dots. This task tested the participants’ ability to focus and filter effectively under varying levels of difficulty.

Ritz explained the collaborative effort between two brain regions during these tasks. He compared the intraparietal sulcus to a radio with two dials – one for focusing and one for filtering – while the anterior cingulate cortex monitors task performance and directs adjustments to these dials based on the task’s demands.

Misconceptions about the human brain and focus

This intricate mental process challenges common misconceptions about the limitations of human focus. 

“When people talk about the limitations of the mind, they often put it in terms of, ‘humans just don’t have the mental capacity’ or ‘humans lack computing power,’” said Ritz. 

“These findings support a different perspective on why we’re not focused all the time. It’s not that our brains are too simple, but instead that our brains are really complicated, and it’s the coordination that’s hard.” 

Ongoing research into focus-and-filter strategies 

Building on these insights, ongoing research at Brown University and in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine is exploring how focus-and-filter strategies can be applied to patients with treatment-resistant depression. 

Additionally, research in Shenhav’s lab, co-led by Ritz and Ph.D. student Xiamin Leng, examines how motivation influences attention, specifically looking at the effects of financial incentives on individuals’ focus-and-filter capabilities. 

These studies continue to advance our understanding of the intricate relationship between attention, motivation, and mental health.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.


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