Small Mental Breaks Help Mind Stay Focused

Focusing attention on a task is difficult; the efficiency decreases as time progresses. Still, the ability to remain focused is crucial to performing daily tasks. A brief shift of attention to another task can prevent loss of total focus, thus attention remains focused for a longer overall time. The current study confirmed this concept. The “results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources” and provide a way to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life.

Vigilance is often a term used for focused attention. Our task of keeping attention focused becomes difficult as time passes. In the past, researchers thought that this was because the brain mechanisms available for attention become progressively less engaged. However, others think that the executive functions of the brain are responsible for keeping vigilance. As time passes, the continuous participation in a cognitive task makes the system too routine. If a new stimulus is presented during vigilance, this habituation does not occur. The person would be able to maintain focused attention for the entire duration of the task. The current study tested this hypothesis and found it to be true.

•    A total of 84 students participated in the experiment.
•    Vigilance was tested by lines appearing on a screen. Participants had to visually focus on a line then quickly press a key whenever a shorter line appeared on the screen. All participants performed this vigilance task. Then they were divided in four groups: “Control”, “No-Switch,” “Switch” and “Digit Ignored. ”
•    The 21 people in the Control group participated in only a vigilance task. The 24 No Switch group participants performed a memory task, in addition to the vigilance task. Participants memorized numbers from one to nine presented on the screen at the beginning and indicated if the number presented later belonged to those shown earlier. For the 23 Switch group participants, numbers were presented four times in the duration of the vigilance task. For the 16 Digit Ignored group participants, numbers were shown on screen during vigilance task but participants ignored them and did not press the lever when a number appeared again.

•    Statistical analysis showed that in the Control and Digit Ignored groups, the capacity to maintain vigilance declined as time passed.
•    In the No-Switch group, the capacity to maintain vigilance also decreased, but at a slower rate than the Control or Digit Ignored groups.
•    But in the Switch group, the condition of vigilance was maintained.
•    These findings showed that the task of focusing on a subject improves if attention is shifted to another subject very briefly during a performance.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The results of this study contradict what was generally believed previously. The addition of another task in an ongoing mental activity requiring focused attention is considered distracting. It decreases and disrupts the focused attention. However, it appears that brief disengagement from the current task is actually beneficial, where it concerns paying attention for a long time. Further research is required to understand the exact brain mechanisms that are responsible for this paradox.

Rather than acting as a distraction, shifting attention from an ongoing task is actually useful. It disengages the executive functions of the brain that maintain vigil and prolong the capacity to continue vigilance. But such disengagements should be very brief and occur rarely, for to be effective. Prolonged disengagement can lead the mind to the other task altogether. The results showed that it is possible to enhance attention during a task of vigilance, even without an “explicit instruction linking certain signals (like our digits) to task performance.” The experiment proved that just prompting the person to activate a separate task goal is enough to improve the vigilance performance when resumed.

For More Information:
Brief and Rare Mental “Breaks” Keep You Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements
Publication Journal: Cognition, January 2011
By Atsunori Ariga; Alejandro Lleras; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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