Visual Distractions May Hamper Working Memory

New research suggests the ability to ignore distraction is often associated with a better working memory.

Specifically, investigators from Simon Fraser University discovered differences in an individual’s working memory capacity correlate with the brain’s ability to actively ignore distraction.

A research team led by psychology professor Dr. John McDonald and doctoral student John Gaspar used EEG technology to determine that “high-capacity” individuals (those who perform well on memory tasks) are able to suppress distractors.

Conversely, “low-capacity” individuals are unable to suppress distractors in time to prevent them from grabbing their attention.

The suppressed memory capabilities has implications for individuals challenged with attention deficit disorders. Academic performance and individual safety concerns may be influenced by the attention deficits.

The research has been published in the journal PNAS.

“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments, and has been associated with attentional deficits, so these results have important implications,” said McDonald, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience.

The study is linked to two previous papers in 2009 and 2014 in which McDonald’s research team showed that when people search the visual world for a particular object, the brain has distinct mechanisms for both locking attention onto relevant information and for suppressing irrelevant information.

The study is the first to relate these specific visual-search mechanisms to memory and show that the suppression mechanism is absent in individuals with low memory capacity.

Source: Simon Fraser University
Distracted student photo by shutterstock.