Sunday, February 22, 2015

Training the Brain to See Better

People are bad at staying focused. We’ve all had our minds wander when we try to concentrate on a task that requires paying close attention but isn’t all that engaging. But a new NIH-funded study suggests that one’s capacity to stay focused can improve with real-time feedback, according to a press release from the National Eye Institute.

“The reason we are bad at staying focused is because we are bad at monitoring our attentional state,” explained Nicholas Turk-Browne, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Princeton University. Dr. Turk-Browne’s lab led the study published in Nature Neuroscience.

“Normally, the only way we know that our attention is drifting is when we make a mistake. But by then it’s too late.” For example, the root cause of driving off a road – a lapse in attention – happens well before any ensuing accident.

So Dr. Turk-Browne and his team asked: What if people could be warned about their waning attention long before they made a mistake? And could they use this feedback to learn to stay more focused, even when no longer provided with feedback?

To answer this question, the researchers recruited several adults to participate in a three-day experiment. Each day, study participants were rapidly shown photographs of male or female faces superimposed on indoor or outdoor scenes. After viewing each image, the participants pushed a button if the image met preset criteria, for example if it showed a male face. In this case, they had to pay attention to the face and ignore the scene.

On the second day, participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can measure patterns of activity in the brain. With fMRI, the investigators were able to monitor the attentional state of participants — that is, whether they were attending to faces or scenes — because these categories trigger different patterns of brain activity.

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