How the Brain Ignores Distractions

A recent paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience has brought new light on the ability of the human brain to prevent salience-driven distraction in a visual task. Researchers at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada) investigated whether salience-driven distraction is prevented by suppressing salient distractors or by preferentially up-weighting the relevant visual dimension. 

As reported by Scientific American, cognitive neuroscientists John Gaspar and John McDonald arrived at the conclusion after asking 48 college students to take attention tests on a computer. The volunteers had to quickly spot a lone yellow circle among an array of green circles without being distracted by an even more eye-catching red circle. All the while the researchers monitored electrical activity in the students' brains. The recorded patterns revealed that their brains consistently suppressed reactions to all circles except the one they were looking for—the first direct evidence of this particular neural process in action.

“Neuroscientists have known about suppression for quite some time, but it's not given as much thought as mechanisms that boost attention,” McDonald says. “We have nailed down how you can prevent distraction through suppression.” 

Abstract available here.