Nobody would like to think of themselves as being ignorant, but it turns out that not paying attention to things can be a benefit at times, according to a new study.
Researchers in the US have found that when people are told to ignore certain information, it makes them more efficient at performing particular visual tasks. In the same way that knowing what you're looking for can speed up a search, the contrary – being aware of what's not of interest – is also the case.
"Individuals who explicitly ignore distracting information improve their visual search performance, a critical skill for professional searchers, like radiologists and airport baggage screeners," said one of the researchers, Corbin A. Cunningham from Johns Hopkins University. "This work has the potential to help occupations that rely on visual search by informing future training programs."
While previous research has found that giving people irrelevant information can slow them down, the new study suggests that when we're given adequate time to learn what we should ignore, it ultimately helps us search faster and more efficiently.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers asked participants to find particular letters among a jumble of letter characters displayed on a computer screen. In some tests the participants were given hints, such as what colours they could ignore. At other times, no clues were offered.
The findings, published in Psychological Science, show that when the participants were given a colour to ignore, the visual clue initially slowed their reaction time down.
But after being told to ignore the colour consistently throughout multiple tests (approximately 100 run-throughs), they started identifying their target letter significantly faster than participants who weren't told what colour to eliminate from the search.
"Attention is usually thought of as something that enhances the processing of important objects in the world," said one of the team, psychologist Howard Egeth. "This study … highlights the importance of active suppression of those competing stimuli. It's what I think of as the dark side of attention."
In other words, the ability to ignore things is a key part of our ability to pay attention to what's really important.
It's not the first time researchers have looked into this area of brain science. Last year, a study by neuroscientists at Brown University found that our brains achieve 'optimal inattention' when we successfully ignore things, such as sensations of pain. "This is about the mechanisms the brain is using to block out distracting things in the environment," said researcher Stephanie Jones.
Scientists think this ability to block out extraneous information is crucial to the way we process information. Another study by researchers at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke last year mapped the circuits in mice brains that are believed to be responsible for ignoring extraneous distractions.
If these circuits stop functioning properly, scientists think we don't know what to ignore and – accordingly – also don't know what to pay attention to.
"We typically use a very small percentage of incoming sensory stimuli to guide our behaviour, but in many neurological disorders the brain is overloaded," said one of the researchers, Michael Halassa. "It gets a lot of sensory input that is not well-controlled because this filtering function might be broken."
So next time somebody tells you you're not paying attention, try to take it as a compliment. After all, it's a necessary counterpoint to our ability to focus on what really matters. Then tell them to talk to the hand.