Skip to main content

Writing in the coffee shop seemed a good idea – a bit of a break from the office – until the smell of fresh-baked cookies became the only thing I could think about. That warm, fabulous aroma was so enticing, it became an incredible source of frustration as I struggled to get back on track and finish a tricky sentence.

Indeed, many of life's annoyances arise from things that get in our way, interfere with our plans, or otherwise distract us from our current focus. Results from recent cognitive psychology and neuroimaging studies have dramatically altered our understanding of how the brain works to minimize such disruptions.

And the news is not good for cookies and the other tempting distractions we face.

The ability to resist distraction has traditionally been investigated in terms of the brain's attention mechanisms. For example, the top and outermost regions of the frontal and parietal lobes have long been known for their roles in enhancing neural representations of objects and locations that are important for our current objectives and ongoing tasks.

When looking for a face in a crowd, for instance, signals from the fronto-parietal attention network are thought to boost activity in specialized visual regions of the temporal and occipital lobes that contribute to face recognition. Evidence from both human and animal studies also suggest that attention helps to suppress neural signals associated with irrelevant objects and locations. This helps you ignore the trees, cars and other faces that clearly do not belong to the person you're looking for.

Meanwhile, a separate field of research has shown that the neural circuits related to emotion and motivation are also critical for prioritizing which objects should become the focus of thoughts and actions. These studies indicate that the lower and innermost regions of the prefrontal cortex appear towork with nearby subcortical structures, such as the amygdala and striatum, to determine whether something is desirable and worth approaching or nasty and best avoided.

It turns out the brain regions supporting emotion and motivation are interconnected with those areas that support attention. This may explain how signals from these regions can bias our attention toward whatever is most relevant to us at that moment. The ability of those cookies to break my concentration was likely greater because I was already hungry.

More recently, scientists have discovered that not only can emotion- and motivation-related signals guide our ability to focus, but that mechanisms of attention can also determine affective responses. The key discovery here is that objects that are ignored or otherwise inhibited become devalued – or liked and wanted less. Faces subjected to attentional inhibition are later rated as being less trustworthy or attractive than those that are the targets of attentional responses.

Neuroimaging studies suggest that such effects are due to inhibitory signals generated by regions of the prefrontal cortex to suppress a potentially distracting stimulus or inappropriate response. These signals are then interpreted by emotion- and reward-related areas, such as the amygdala and orbital-frontal cortex, as something that is problematic and to be avoided. The resulting devaluation is thought to help people avoid that thing in subsequent encounters – after all, we tend to avoid things we dislike.

Such effects can be hugely beneficial for people struggling to avoid certain things. A recent study found that a session of withholding key-press responses to alcohol-related stimuli resulted in a significant reduction in weekly alcohol consumption. Another study found similar results with chocolate – those who inhibited images of chocolate ate less of it during a subsequent taste test than those for whom chocolate was previously the target of their attention and key-press responses.

All of this relates to the battle in the brain that is constantly going on between neural signals that are competing to become the focus of our thoughts and actions. Understanding how attention, emotion and motivation operate together provides key information about how we can gain the upper hand in biasing such competitions in favour of our long-term objectives. So watch out cookies, your tantalizing smell and soft-on-the-inside goodness might not always be so powerful.

Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Guelph.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct