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Lunch Hour Lectures: Distracted, confused and unaware – the elusive gift of attention

By Kilian Thayaparan, on 24 October 2014

Active brain“I hope you’re not all here for the wrong reason – so distracted, confused and unaware that you can’t pay attention”, Professor Nilli Lavie (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) joked at the beginning of her lecture on the psychology and brain research of attention. One would suspect that among the packed out audience, many (like myself) were in fact there in the hope of a ‘cure’ for the attention difficulties we all face in our everyday lives.

Professor Lavie first provided a succinct yet simple definition of ‘attention’, describing it as a process of gathering our mental resources and focusing on a portion of information around us; a selective focus of our neural and mental processes.

She then posed two specific questions with regards to this: Why at some times are we so distracted that we can’t pay attention? And why at other times do we pay so much attention that we don’t notice important things that are happening around us?

Focusing on her first question, Professor Lavie provided some examples of where distraction occurs in our everyday lives; at work, research has shown that distractions take up 2.1 hours of the working day, whilst on the road, we’re exposed to both internal (e.g. mobile phones, children) and external (e.g. billboards, accidents) distractions.

Much research has been carried out on distraction, one example being a test in which participants were first asked to identify a letter that appeared in the middle of a screen whilst a duplicate letter appeared in the corner. They were then asked to do the same thing, but this time the letter that appeared in the corner was different to the one they needed to identify.

Measuring the speed responses, the results showed that reaction times were 10% slower when presented with a different letter in the corner than when presented with an identical letter, suggesting that we are more likely to be distracted when the task that we are performing at the time is less complex.

Turning her attention to her second question – why we are sometimes so focused that we don’t notice things around us – Professor Lavie first described this using the term ‘inattentional blindness/deafness’, before using some high-profile (and unfortunate) instances to demonstrate this – one example was a plane crash in which the pilots were so focused on a landing gear issue in the cockpit that they failed to notice they were running out of fuel.

As is the case with distraction, significant research has been conducted on inattentional blindness/deafness, including an experiment where participants were asked to identify which line presented on a screen, either horizontal or vertical, was blue. They were then presented with more lines but this time asked to identify which line was slightly longer ­– a more difficult task.

Participants were then asked if they noticed the small black box that flashed up in the corner of the screen in each instance. Significantly more noticed this during the easier colour identification task than the more difficult length identification task, showing that inattentional blindness is more likely to occur when we are presented with a complex task.

So how can we explain why easier tasks leave us easily distracted while more difficult tasks mean that we inadvertently ignore things happening around us? The answer is neatly explained in Professor Lavie’s Load Theory – our brains have a limited load processing capacity; therefore, whilst in low load tasks our brain can process the required information automatically with extra capacity for other distractions, high load tasks take up all of that capacity and leave little ‘space’ for any further thinking.

As Professor Lavie highlighted throughout the lecture, there’s no simple ‘quick fix’ to resolving difficulties related to attention and distraction – it’s all dependent on our own individual experiences and how much ‘load’ a specific task places on our brains. In this respect, ‘Distracted, confused and unaware: the elusive gift of attention’ didn’t offer a solution to attention difficulties – instead, and perhaps more importantly, it provided a clear understanding of the complex nature of how our brains work.

You can catch up on past Lunch Hour Lectures on the dedicated YouTube channel. Details of other Lunch Hour Lectures taking place this term are available on the UCL Events calendar.

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