From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published October 15, 2012 09:14 AM

The Science of Distraction Revealed

It is the bane of all college students and workers who are struggling to finish a report or a project. Sometimes, one simply cannot help their mind from wandering from the task at hand to often trivial and pointless things. Example: It is clear that I need to finish this essay by tomorrow, but the Yankees are playing later tonight. Also, I'm going to be hungry in a few hours and don't know I want for dinner. And, oh yeah, this is a great song that is playing and I really should listen to it. Letting distractions take over is obviously counterproductive and even debilitating. However, according to a new research study, mind wandering is not always a bad thing. It is, in fact, related to a cognitive process involved in working memory and executive control.

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Sometimes while engaged in simple tasks like driving home on the roadways or taking a shower, sudden epiphanies can occur due to letting the mind wander. Problems can be solved by letting one's creative thoughts take over while performing unrelated tasks. This was the phenomenon which was put under scientific scrutiny by researcher Benjamin Baird from the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, and his colleages.

An experiment was designed in which participants were asked to perform an Unusual Use Task (UUT), listing as many unusual uses for an item as possible. Participants were split into four groups. After performing the UUT, each was asked to perform the following:

Group 1: Given a demanding task (i.e. solving calculus equations)

Group 2: Given an undemanding task (i.e. stuffing envelopes)

Group 3: Given a 12 minute break

Group 4: Given no break

Immediately afterwards, all participants were asked to conduct a second UUT task. Of all four groups, the one with the most improved score belonged to those who were given an undemanding task.

During their undemanding task, they reported greater instances of mind wandering. This suggests that performing simple tasks can increase creative problem solving.

Of course, mind wandering can also occur while doing tasks of great import. This is usually when the mind wandering is referred in negative terminology, distraction. A separated study by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Greensboro discusses the relationships among working memory, task-unrelated thoughts, and task performance. Their research showed that people with lower working memory capacity are more likely to be distracted during demanding tasks. This explains why people with lower working memory also commit more errors. Researchers Kane and McVay explain that involuntary mind wandering can provide psychological scientists with a unique view of the mind's mechanisms for cognitive control and how, when, and for whom these mechanisms fail.

In today's hyper speed world, when focus and concentration are critical to getting the job done accurately and on time, the science of distraction looms large. But the research shows that letting one's mind wander, at least during simple tasks, can actually produce a net benefit. It is during the demanding tasks when we must be aware of our limitations.

The UC Santa Barbara study was published in the journal, Psychological Science

Distracted Boy image via Shutterstock

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