Can't Focus? Researchers Find What Distracts Us Most & We're All Ears

mbg Editorial Assistant By Christina Coughlin
mbg Editorial Assistant
Christina Coughlin is an editorial assistant at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2019 with a degree in psychology and music.
Woman Resting on the Couch Listening to Music

Image by Ivan Gener / Stocksy

Life seems to get more distracting every year. Between smartphone notifications, social media, and 24/7 news, it's hard to stay focused on a single task. But which is more distracting, what we see or what we hear?

New research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, and the Computational Neuroscience and Cognitive Robotics Centre at the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., around brain structures and sensory perceptions found that sound may be more of an attention-grabber than sight. Looks like it might be time to buy those noise-canceling headphones, after all!

Researchers were looking to gain a deeper understanding of the brain and where our attention goes, specifically focusing on what parts of the brain were affected, as measured by MRI, when trying to focus on various stimuli.

According to the research, "In our natural environment, our senses are exposed to a constant influx of sensory signals that arise from many different sources, but how the brain flexibly regulates information flow across the senses to enable effective interactions with the world remains unclear."

To test these questions, researchers administered brain scans to participants as they looked at various images and stimuli, assessing to see which areas of the brain were turning on and off. Participants looked at the visual stimuli and listened to the audio cues both separately and then together, and were tested being told to focus on just the images or just the sounds.

Researchers found that visual areas of the brain were able to turn off when participants heard a sound, effectively showing that sound has the ability to draw our attention away from something that we're looking at. 

Any research that provides new information about the layout of the brain helps scientists gain a deeper understanding of how it works, giving them the materials needed to treat any kind of disease affected by the brain. In a world full of constant stimulation, sights, and sounds, it can be good to know how these stimuli affect us in a more scientific sense.

According to the study authors, "Our findings are crucial for understanding how the brain regulates information flow across senses to interact with our complex multisensory world." They look to future studies to deepen this understanding, hoping to create a more detailed explanation of why these areas of the brain work differently and why auditory and visual stimuli are separate.

In the meantime, if you're struggling with staying focused, treat yourself to those noise-canceling headphones, and check out some of our best tips for boosting mental clarity and getting rid of brain fog

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