Losing Focus May Actually Boost Learning, Study Says: ScienceAlert

Losing Focus May Actually Boost Learning, Study Says: ScienceAlert

Losing Focus May Actually Boost Learning, Study Says: ScienceAlert

Losing focus for a brief moment might actually help boost learning by giving our brains a quick respite from the task at hand. According to a new study, this could allow us to absorb information that might not be directly related to the task at hand, but which could nevertheless be useful to know.

“While concentration helps us focus on our goals, losing some focus can widen the span of attention, helping us incorporate less relevant information, which could help us learn patterns in our environment or even to integrate distant ideas or concepts”, Explain Alexandra Decker, the cognitive neuroscientist who led the new study, on Twitter.

Making connections between distant concepts or being able to generate a motley mix of new ideas (called divergent thinking) are two aspects of creativity that scientists can measure. But staying focused while ignoring distractions is also key to learning new skills, developing new ideas, or finding a “state of flow.”

In the stories of no one who dozed off in class, attention lapses have been found to impair everything from basic perception to learning and memory. Distractions appear and our concentration diminishes.

But despite our best efforts, our attention naturally fluctuates. While some research suggests that lapses in attention are a sign that our brains are overloaded, another theory posits that loss of concentration can occur when a task becomes too monotonous.

This could lead to unexpected benefits. Our brain may turn inward and begin to wander in its own thoughts, it may exist in a blissful, “mindless” state, or it may begin to seek out other bits of information to digest, which might in turn facilitate learning.

That’s what Decker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wanted to figure out: where our mind goes when attention fades, and whether losing focus can sometimes be good for learning.

She had been following research that suggested that people with higher impulsivity and lower cognitive control – such as young adults and children – learned better about the relationships between seemingly unrelated information that they had been told to ignore.

In the new study led by Decker, a group of 53 undergraduate students were tasked with categorizing letters and numbers that appeared on a computer screen, flanked by distracting symbols that they had been told to ignore.

People’s attention swung in and out of focus, as expected. The researchers observed this using a technique that detects fluctuations in attention based on personal reaction times.

During moments of loss of concentration, people’s attention widened, allowing them to pick up the symbols that actually corresponded to the appearance of a letter or number – essentially tipping their brains towards that which was on the screen with an additional signal.

People who lost focus more often actually had faster and more accurate responses, indicating better learning of symbol-encoded patterns.

“People who learned the most about target-flanker pairings were in a reduced attention state – that is, ‘out of the box’ – more often than those who learned less,” the researchers write. in their published article.

Additionally, when the researchers zoomed in on the individual participants, they could see that the learning was most evident during their attentional gaps.

“Our results suggest that sometimes losing focus can be a good thing,” Decker said. tweeted. “But going from a period of focus to a period of less focus might be best overall.”

Of course, these lab experiments only scratch the surface of how our brain registers or prioritizes peripheral information in the real world – an environment far more complex than a computer room.

Yet his findings match a growing body of research that has ignored the negative vibes around mind wandering and daydreaming. Previous studies have revealed what many people can attest to: letting your mind wander after a period of sustained focus can help get the creative juices flowing.

Finding the sweet spot of engagement to tickle the brain’s creative tendencies seems important, however: too much stimulation and our brain has little attention to devote to ideation; not enough stimuli and the task becomes boring.

Attention is an inconstant thing. Previous studies have shown that our brain changes focus four times per second, as if scanning its environment for other stimuli it might need to register. It’s a useful skill for staying alert to possible dangers, but also a pattern of activity that’s easily hijacked in a world full of distractions.

Perhaps what matters is our intention: that we give our brains some space to roam, to find new connections or new ideas in unlikely places – like in the hot steam of a shower – or that we lull him into dull fatigue with rolling screen blur.

The study was published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

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