Losing focus for a brief moment can actually help boost learning by giving our brains a quick reprieve from the task at hand. According to a new study, this can allow us to absorb information that may not be directly related to the task at hand, but may still be useful to know.
“While focus helps us narrow our goals, losing focus can expand the scope of attention, helping us incorporate less relevant information, which can 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 wide-ranging concepts or being able to generate a motley mix of new ideas (called divergent thinking) are two aspects of creativity that researchers 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 anyone who has dozed off in class, attention deficit has been shown 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 that attention lapses are a sign that our brains are overloaded, another theory suggests that losing focus can happen when a task becomes too monotonous.
This can lead to some unexpected benefits. Our brain can turn inward and start wandering through its own thoughts, it can exist in a blissful, “mindless” state, or it can start looking for other tidbits of information to digest – which in turn can aid learning.
This is what Decker, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wanted to find out: where our minds go when attention wanders, and whether losing focus can sometimes be good for learning.
She had followed research suggesting that 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 students were 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.
In 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 number—essentially tipping their brains 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 pairing between targets and flankers were in a reduced state of attention – that is, ‘out of the zone’ – more often than those who learned less,” the researchers write in their published paper.
Also, when the researchers zoomed in on individual participants, they could see that learning was more evident during their attention lapses.
“Our results suggest that losing a little focus can actually be a good thing sometimes,” Decker tweeted. “But alternating between periods of being focused and less focused may be best overall.”
Of course, these lab experiments only scratch the surface of how our brains register or prioritize peripheral information in the real world—a far more complex environment than a computer room.
Still, the findings fit with a growing body of research that has shrugged off the negative vibes surrounding mind wandering and daydreaming. Previous studies have found what many people can attest to: letting your mind wander after a period of sustained concentration can help get the creative juices flowing.
However, finding the sweet spot of engagement to tickle the brain’s creative tendencies seems important: too much stimulation and our brains have little attention left for ideas; not enough stimuli and the task becomes boring.
Attention is a fickle thing. Previous studies have shown that our brain shifts focus four times a second, as if scanning its surroundings for other stimuli it may need to register. It’s a useful skill for being aware of possible dangers, but also an activity pattern that can be easily hijacked in a world full of distractions.
Perhaps what matters is our intention: whether we give the brain some space to roam, find new connections or ideas in unlikely places—like in the warm steam of a shower—or lull it into a muted fatigue with a blur of rolling screens.
The study was published in Psychological Bulletin and Review.