Focusing on something else for a short while can in fact help our learning because our brains can take a break from the task at hand. This could, according to a new study, enable us to absorb information that is not specifically associated with the task at hand but that is nonetheless useful.
“Having some focus can help us narrow down our goals, but losing some of it can broaden our scope of attention and assist us involve less relevant information, which could aid us learn regularities in our environment or incorporate distant concepts or ideas,” explains Alexandra Decker, the cognitive neuroscientist who led the new study, on Twitter.
Scientists are able to measure two elements of imagination by making connections between distant concepts, or by creating a motley blend of new ideas (called divergent thinking). Staying focused as well as dismissing interruptions is also essential to learning new skills, developing new ideas or finding a flow state.
In news to everybody who has dozed off in class, lapses in attention have been found to impair everything from fundamental perception to learning and memory. Our focus becomes distracted and we lose focus.
Our attention, nevertheless, naturally changes. One theory is that concentration could be lost if a job gets way too monotonous, while others point out lapses in attention are a sign that our brains are overloaded.
There may be unexpected benefits this could bring. Our brain could wander and stroll, it can be blissful,’ mindless ‘state, or maybe it may start searching for various other pieces of information to process, which may aid learning.
This’s what Decker, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wanted to discover: where our brain goes when attention fades, and whether losing focus can at times be great for learning.
She said research had demonstrated that individuals who had been much younger and had reduced cognitive control had been better at learning the relationships between apparantly unrelated bits of information they were told to ignore.
Decker’s group of fifty three undergraduate students was given the task of identifying letters and numbers on a computer screen, flanked by distracting symbols that they were instructed to disregard.
As expected, people’s interest swung from just one focus to the next. This was observed by using a technique which detects fluctuations in attention based on individual reaction times.
During times of lost focus, people’s interest expanded in scope, allowing them to take in the symbols that actually paralleled the visual appeal of a letter or a number – basically tipping their brains off to what was on the display with an additional cue.
Those who lost their concentration more often had quicker and more precise responses, suggesting better learning of the patterns encoded by the symbols.
The researchers found that people who learned the most about target flanker pairings were more often in a reduced attentional state, or out of the zone than individuals who learned less.
And when scientists focused on individual participants, they could see that learning was more apparent during their attentional lapses.
Decker wrote, “Our results suggest that losing a bit of focus might actually be a good thing at times. “However, switching between periods of being focused and times of being less focused might be best overall,” she said.
These laboratory experiments merely scratch the surface of the way the brain registers or prioritizes peripheral info in the real world, a far more advanced environment compared to a computer room.
But the results also help support a growing body of research that dismisses the bad vibes around daydreaming and mind wandering. Studies that have been done have revealed what many people can attest to: Following a time of intensive concentration, letting your mind wander will help release the creative juices.
However, it appears crucial that you locate the sweet spot of involvement which is going to tickle the creative tendencies of the human brain. Our brains do not have a lot of room for ideation and a lot of stimulation; There are not sufficient stimuli and the job becomes monotonous.
Interest has a variable nature. Studies show that our brain shifts focus 4 times a second when scanning the surrounding environment for other stimuli. This is a practical ability to have to be alert to potential dangers, but it’s also a pattern of activity that could be hijacked in a world filled with distractions.
It may be that what matters is our intention: Whether we’re letting our brains roam, to find new ideas or connections in unlikely places, in the steam of a shower, or lulling it into a muted exhaustion with a blur of rolling screens.