Positive distractions can increase your mental performance compared with negative distractions, a new study finds.
Negative distractions — like, say, the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard — are well-known to degrade our performance.
Positive distractions, though, do not have such a negative impact.
Mr Alexandru Iordan, the study’s first author explained:
“…positive distractions do not interfere with working memory performance, in fact, they actually help compared to the negative distractions, even though they may produce equally intense emotional responses.”
The reason that positive distractions are better than negative is down to a quirk in the way our brains work
Dr Florin Dolcos, the study’s other author, said:
“Positive stimuli are less imperative than the negative ones, because the immediate costs of not paying attention to them are typically smaller.
For instance, evolutionarily, not paying attention to a potential food source is usually less dramatic than not paying attention to something dangerous, like a predator.”
Iordan and Dolcos also found key differences in the way brain regions related to attention and memory reacted.
Mr Iordan said:
“These areas stay in tune with each other when we try to keep information active in our mind.
Negative distractions strongly reduced activity in these regions.
However, positive distractions had less impact on activity in these regions and increased activity in the ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with emotion control.
This may explain why we perform better under positive distraction — because those distractions have less detrimental effects in brain areas involved in the ability to stay focused on the tasks at hand, and they increase activity in areas that are helping us to cope with distraction.”
The study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex (Iordan & Dolcos, 2015).
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