Distractions. We all fall victim to them; whether it’s while doing homework, listening in class, or even driving. Attention can seem fleeting. Some of us even self diagnose with “short attention span” or worse “short term memory loss.” We can be writing a paper and all of the sudden find ourselves on Instagram and it’s been an hour. There are two things at play here, the initial distraction versus the allocation of our time.We don’t realize attention is selective. Kendra Cherry defines selective attention as “Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment
for a certain period of time.”(Cherry, 2019). We choose where our attention is focused and for how long. Most distractions while doing homework are due to changes in stimuli that catch our attention. Even when we are doing something we like, we can get distracted. We, as students, can get bored looking over our notes, they all look the same. However, when something on TV “catches our eye” it’s easy to get pulled away from those same old notes, especially if it’s more appealing.
Scientists are aware that there are two sorts of approaches when it comes to processing incoming information, top-down and bottom-up. As a refresher, top-down processing is when we process the whole, then its parts, breaking down the big picture. Bottom-up processing is the opposite, we go step by step, reaching the conclusion at the end. In this study, the scientist noted the differences in two types of focus, willful and automatic (Whipps, 2007). They describe willful focus as “when you gaze at a piece of art”(Whipps, 2007). For us, willful focus is like an all night cram sesh, choosing to give all your attention on your homework, hopefully. You are choosing to focus on that. It releases top-down signals in the brain (Whipps, 2007). When automatic focus happens, it is like “a wailing siren snaps you to attention”(Whipps, 2007). It is like when you’re doing a BuzzFeed quiz and an ad comes up on the side and your eye gets drawn to it for a second. They associate automatic focus with bottom-up processing. They learned that these signals actually happen in different parts of the brain (Whipps, 2007).
The authors from this article describe a scientist’s study, Miller, that he did with monkeys to determine which part of the brain these signals engage. Miller had an image “pop-out” to a monkey to see which part of the brain would be affected and it was the parietal, but when the monkey was just looking for an object, the part of the brain that was affected was the prefrontal (Whipps, 2007). This means that our focus on an assignment and reading our textbooks can be very intense, but if a stimulus comes up, like a snapchat notification, it will affect a totally different part of the brain, so the distraction isn’t a measurement of how hard we are focusing or not, because it is not affecting that part of the brain.
So whether or not we try to limit distractions, it still can be very hard to get rid of them. Say we don’t have our phone but we are on our computer researching and an ad pops up, our brain will be drawn to it. Even if the ad doesn’t concern us for long, it still takes away our attention. If we are driving and we turn the corner and suddenly there is a big red sign, that will pull our focus, especially if it is unexpected. Distractions aren’t because of our lack willful focus but because of automatic responses that occur because of them. It’s an interesting article. It’s good to know, at least in my opinion, that we use different parts of our brain for focus and distractions and it’s not completely our fault for getting distracted. What is our fault is the amount of time afterwards that we spend on the stimulus.