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Easily Distracted People May Have Too Much Brain

Illustration for article titled Easily Distracted People May Have Too Much Brain

Those who are easily distracted from the task in hand may have "too much brain".

So says Ryota Kanai and his colleagues at University College London, who found larger than average volumes of grey matter in certain brain regions in those whose attention is readily diverted.

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To investigate distractibility, the team compared the brains of easy and difficult-to-distract individuals.

They assessed each person's distractibility by quizzing them about how often they fail to notice road signs, or go into a supermarket and become sidetracked to the point that they forget what they came in to buy. The most distractible individuals received the highest score.

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The team then imaged the volunteers' brains using a structural MRI scanner. The most obvious difference between those who had the highest questionnaire scores – the most easily distracted – and those with low scores was the volume of grey matter in a region of the brain known as the left superior parietal lobe (SPL). Specifically, the easily distracted tended to have more grey matter here.

Brain dampening

To find out whether activity in the left SPL plays a role in distractibility, the team turned to transcranial magnetic stimulation. This hand-held magnet dampens the activity of the part of the brain beneath it for around half an hour.

First, the researchers asked 15 volunteers to perform a timed task both with and without a distraction. The difference in the time taken to perform the tasks is a measure of how easily distracted a person is, says Kanai.

When the same individuals later repeated the exercise following transcranial magnetic stimulation over the left SPL to dampen its activity, the time each took to complete the task increased by around a quarter, on average.

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"This suggests that the left SPL is involved in top-down control of attention," says Kanai.

Immature brain

Together, the two experiments suggest that the left SPL works to overcome distraction, and that those with larger left SPLs are more easily distracted.

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Quite why SPL size works this way is unclear, but Kanai speculates that it may be linked to that fact that as we mature, the brain's grey matter is pruned of neurons in order to work more efficiently.

He suggests that a greater volume of grey matter may indicate a less mature brain, perhaps reflecting a mild developmental malfunction. "This theory would fit in with the observation that children are more easily distracted than adults," Kanai says.

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But all is not lost for the distracted. Having identified that the left SPL plays a role in distraction, Kanai's team has begun to test ways to improve levels of attention by stimulating the left SPL using a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation. This involves placing electrodes on the head to deliver an unnoticeable electrical current to the immediate area.

"There are some signs that we can modulate attention" using transcranial direct current stimulation near to the left SPL, Kanai says. If confirmed, the technique might be useful for people whose distractibility becomes problematic, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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Journal reference: Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.5864-10.2011

Image Credit: Shutterstock/iDesign

Illustration for article titled Easily Distracted People May Have Too Much Brain
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DISCUSSION

AgentRockstar
AgentRockstar

One more thing these scientists must include; or the people reading this must realize; is the fact that there is a variable that is exempt from all these tests: it is the reason for distraction and no focus. IF these people had a goal or a purpose they might have a different outcome.

Fiskfisk says they're reading Gizmodo instead of studying (maybe joking) ; well I'd ask what are they studying for? Is it a pointless class? or is it finals? Where will it lead them to? the career of a lifetime? or they're just going through the motions? Did they pay for it? or money ain't a thing?

I think there was a similar article earlier about multitasking.

My argument is only because the following is my scenario : Whether at work or home I have at least 6 screens going; usually 3 computers and 2 screens each; I always have something I need to get done; but I have the TV going; while I'm listening to music; and reading articles whether on gizmodo or other sites; all this stimulates me while I'm doing at least 2 things at the same time; often 1 or 2 things that are repetitive and can be monitored out of the corners of my eyes and one task that does need some extra attention. My primary goal? I'm making money at least 2-3 different ways at the same time; rather than one after another. My ultimate goal? I'm retiring as early as possible.

At work I have a task that fluctuates in volume throughout the day; but the overall goal is to get it all done. Sometimes I'll get a lot in the morning and then a lot in the afternoon; sometimes it's constant and steady flow throughout the day; let's call them TPS reports. So; I've gotten 100 done in a day and sometimes 40; the following has occurred: On any given day I've gotten 20 reports in a morning before lunch. Then I get 80 reports about an hour before the end of the day. Regardless they get done. On another day I get all 100 reports in the morning and I finish them throughout the day. There is someone monitoring the process therefore they can see that sometimes I do 10 an hour; and sometimes I've done 80 in an hour. And then the following happens: Some idiot comes and asks me: hey; how come if you can do 80 an hour; why don't you just get everything done as soon as you can?

My answer? I pace myself. I get the reports; I start steady; as the time goes by I notice whether more reports come in or not and then adjust my pace accordingly. I am constantly distracting myself; but it's all stimulation; if I only focused on one thing at a time; I'd just get bored.

Ok; now I don't know what was my point or if my point made sense. If you have goals you can't get distracted whether you have a small or big brain. And some of us probably just work better with distraction as a stimuli.