While many people complain of getting perturbed by the sound of blowing horns while trying to concentrate on something, researchers have now found that students with high memory storage capacity are better at ignoring distractions and staying focused on their assigned tasks.
The study by University of Oregon researchers was conducted on 84 students divided into four separate experiments
In the study, principal investigator Dr. Edward K. Vogel, compared working memory to a computer's random-access memory (RAM) rather than the hard drive's size, which means that the higher the RAM, the better processing abilities.
He said in a 2005 paper that, with more RAM, students were better able to ignore distractions.
In the current study, the researchers conducted experiments with some variations in approaches-students' brain activity was monitored using electroencephalography (EEG) while they studied images on a computer screen, recognizing a shape with a missing component, and then identifying the object after it moved simply to another location or amid distractions.
Using a "task irrelevant probe"-a 50 millisecond-long flash of light-the researchers could determine where exactly a subject's attention was focused.
All the subjects could quickly and accurately identify the targets when the objects moved around the screen.
But as distracting components were added, some maintained accuracy, while others diverted their attention and slipped in performing the assigned tasks.
Now, the researchers are working to explore if the easily distracted indeed have a positive side, such as in artistic creativity and imagination.
The new research focussed on the brain's prefrontal cortex -- a region linked to executive function and under scrutiny for its association with many neurological disorders -- and the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), which is involved in perceptual-motor coordination, including eye movements.
The researchers said that the IPS acts as a pointer system that seeks out goal-related cues, and it possibly is the gateway for memory circuitry in the brain.
"Our attention is the continual interplay between what our goals are and what the environment is trying to dictate to us. Often, to be able to complete complex and important goal-directed behaviour, we need to be able to ignore salient but irrelevant things, such as advertisements flashing around an article you are trying to read on a computer screen. We found that some people are really good at overriding attention capture, and other people have a difficult time unhooking from it and are really susceptible to irrelevant stimuli," said Vogel.
The study has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.