Distract Yourself: Interruptions Can Boost Performance

girl studying
A new study suggests taking brief mental breaks improves performance on a prolonged task. (Image credit: Jason Lindseay (jasonlindsey.com))

Doing a task over and over again can literally be mind-numbing to the point where the habituation causes your performance on that task to drop.

The solution? Take a brief break and pay attention to something else.

A new psychological study has shown that brief interruptions kept participants' performance on a task from dropping. This is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change, according to lead researcher Alejandro Lleras, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," Lleras said.

Lleras and fellow researcher Atsunori Ariga divided 84 study participants into groups and tested their ability to focus on a repetitive task, which lasted 40 minutes and entailed pressing a key when a longer line was replaced by a shorter one on a computer screen.

Some participants memorized four digits before the task, and their memory was tested after the task. Of these, some were presented with the digits during the task, and asked to decide if the numbers belonged to the memorized set. Others performed only the visual line task, and others were told to ignore numbers that appeared as they performed the visual task.

While most participants' performances on the visual task declined over time, the performance by the group that was asked to respond to the digits while in the midst of the task did not.

These results conflict with a previous theory that performance dropped over time because people stopped paying attention.

"But you are always paying attention to something," Lleras said. "Attention is not the problem."

You can follow LiveSciencewriter Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.