Related Wikipedia entry on working memory
Human variation in Overriding Attentional Capture
Paper: Fukuda, Keisuke, and Edward K Vogel. “Human variation in overriding attentional capture,” 2009. 29 (27).
The ability to override the involuntary capture of attention(ie., distractions) by salient but irrelant information is an important factor for successful completion of many goal-directed behaviours. (like stray noises, and other distractions). Working memory capacity (WM) is an important factor in people’s ability to carry out many coginitive tasks. WM can be thought as a “workplace” for task-relevant information. Individuals with high capacity WM are shown to perform better on attention tasks. Control signals controlling access to WM originate in prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. These signals are weak in low-capacity individuals. The questions the paper is trying to weigh are: is the poor performance a result of a) weak control signals in selecting relevant information while ignoring distractions or, b) that these individual’s inability to override strong distracting sigals. The researchers found that there is a systemic variability across individuals in the ability to override distractions. The results suggest that poor attention by low-memory capacity individuals is due to their inability in overriding involuntary attention capture signals from distracting information. The researchers found that poor attention ability of low-capacity subjects appears to stem from the allocation of attention within the initial moments after the onset of distracting information.
Much like computers, humans have a finite amount of “working memory” which is crucial in storing task relevant information. High performing inviduals have the capability to not to fill up this memory with irrelevant information. The experiement suggests that in low-memory capacity individuals, they end up losing even eariler because they give into external distractions even earlier than the better equipped individuals. Prefrontal cortex plays an important role in generating signals that control access to the WM.An improved working memory and slower initial response to distracting signals can help in improving task performance. It will be interesting to see if these signals can be strengthened by the way of meditation or training. Also, “adding your own deadline together with a reward has shown some of the most significant improvements for task completion according to researcher Keisuke Fukuda” – see
“The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains” by Nicholas Carr.