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Prolonged attention to a task hinders progress, says study

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Brief breaks from a task help, not hinder, your performance and attention. It’s something that hard workers have known for ages – yet rarely practice! How many students have burnt the midnight oil, studying non-stop, with little advantage over those who had a more measured approach to study?

But a new study into the nature of attention shows it’s not that we have a finite amount of attention, but rather that our attention can get distracted and focus on something else.

In the report, ‘Brief and rare mental ‘breaks’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements’, published by the University of Illinois, researchers found that a lack of breaks and the subsequent decline in performance – what they refer to as ‘vigilance decrement’ – seriously affects how well we execute a task at hand.

“For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” says Alejandro Lleras, the psychology professor who led the study. “You are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem.”

He uses the analogy of sensory perception, the idea that the brain shuts out constant stimuli such as smell or sound, to prove his point. For example, while there is a sensation of clothes on skin, most people become “habituated” to the feeling and thus do not pay attention to it.

“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness,” Lleras says. “Things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind!”

In the study, participants were asked to complete a 50-minute computer task, some with breaks to unrelated tasks, others without.

Not surprisingly, those that had no breaks saw performance decline significantly. Those with breaks saw no drop in performance.

“We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” says Lleras.

“In sum, vigilance decrements are not about an exhaustion of attention; they are about a loss of control over the contents of our thoughts,” the report concludes. “Happily, it is a surprisingly easy-to-prevent loss of control.”

Is it time for your coffee break yet?

Published on: Friday, April 01, 2011

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