Losing focus for a brief moment might actually help boost learning by giving our brains a quick reprieve from the task at hand. According to a new study, this could allow us to absorb information that might not be directly related to the task at hand, but could still be handy to know.
"Whereas focusing helps us narrow in on our goals, losing some focus can expand the scope of attention, helping us to incorporate less relevant information, which could help us learn regularities in our environment or even integrate distant ideas or concepts," explains Alexandra Decker, the cognitive neuroscientist who led the new study, on Twitter.
Making connections between far-flung concepts or being able to generate a motley mix of new ideas (called divergent thinking) are two aspects of creativity that scientists can measure. But staying focused while ignoring distractions is also key to learning new skills, developing new ideas, or finding a 'flow state'.
In news to no one who has dozed off in class, lapses in attention have been found to impair everything from basic perception to learning and memory. Distractions appear and our focus wanes.
But try as we might, our attention naturally fluctuates. While some research suggests lapses in attention are a sign our brains are overloaded, another theory posits that losing focus may happen when a task becomes too monotonous.
This could lead to some unexpected benefits. Our brain might turn inward and start to wander through its own thoughts, it could exist in a blissful, 'mindless' state, or start looking for other tidbits of information to digest – which in turn might aid learning.
This is what Decker, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wanted to figure out: where our mind goes when attention fades, and whether losing focus can sometimes be good for learning.
She had been following research that suggested people with higher impulsivity and lower cognitive control – such as young adults and children – were better at learning the relationships between seemingly unrelated pieces of information that they were told to ignore.
In the new study led by Decker, a group of 53 undergraduate students was tasked with categorizing letters and numbers that appeared on a computer screen, flanked by distracting symbols that they were told to ignore.
People's attention wavered in and out of focus, as expected. The researchers observed this using a technique that detects fluctuations in attention based on personal reaction times.
During moments of lost focus, people's attention expanded in scope, allowing them to take in the symbols that actually paralleled the appearance of a letter or a number – essentially tipping their brains off to what was on the screen with an extra cue.
People who lost focus more often actually had faster, more accurate responses, indicating better learning of the patterns encoded by the symbols.
"People who learned the most about target–flanker pairings were in a reduced attentional state – that is, "out of the zone" – more often than those who learned less," the researchers write in their published paper.
What's more, when the researchers zoomed in on individual participants, they could see that learning was more evident during their attentional lapses.
"Our results suggest that losing a bit of focus might actually be a good thing sometimes," Decker tweeted. "But shifting between periods of being focused and less focused might be best overall."
Of course, these lab experiments only scratch the surface of how our brain registers or prioritizes peripheral information in the real world – a far more complex environment than a computer room.
Yet its findings fit with a growing body of research that has shrugged off the negative vibes around mind wandering and daydreaming. Past studies have found what many people can attest to: letting your mind wander after a period of sustained concentration can help get creative juices flowing.
Finding the sweet spot of engagement to tickle the brain's creative tendencies seems important though: too much stimulation and our brains have little attention to spare on ideation; not enough stimuli and the task becomes boring.
Attention is a fickle thing. Past studies have shown that our brain shifts focus four times a second, as if scanning its surroundings for other stimuli it might need to register. That's a useful skill to remain alert to possible dangers, but also a pattern of activity that's easily hijacked in a world full of distractions.
Perhaps what matters is our intention: whether we're giving our brains some space to roam, to find new connections or ideas in unlikely places – like in the hot steam of a shower – or lulling it into a muted fatigue with a blur of rolling screens.
The study was published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.