Distracting the Mind Improves Performance: An ERP Study

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Background: When a second target (T2) is presented in close succession of a first target (T1), people often fail to identify T2, a phenomenon known as the attentional blink (AB). However, the AB can be reduced substantially when participants are distracted during the task, for instance by a concurrent task, without a cost for T1 performance. The goal of the current study was to investigate the electrophysiological correlates of this paradoxical effect. Methodology/Principal Findings: Participants successively performed three tasks, while EEG was recorded. The first task (standard AB) consisted of identifying two target letters in a sequential stream of distractor digits. The second task (grey dots task) was similar to the first task with the addition of an irrelevant grey dot moving in the periphery, concurrent with the central stimulus stream. The third task (red dot task) was similar to the second task, except that detection of an occasional brief color change in the moving grey dot was required. AB magnitude in the latter task was significantly smaller, whereas behavioral performance in the standard and grey dots tasks did not differ. Using mixed effects models, electrophysiological activity was compared during trials in the grey dots and red dot tasks that differed in task instruction but not in perceptual input. In the red dot task, both target-related parietal brain activity associated with working memory updating (P3) as well as distractor-related occipital activity was significantly reduced. Conclusions/Significance: The results support the idea that the AB might (at least partly) arise from an overinvestment of attentional resources or an overexertion of attentional control, which is reduced when a distracting secondary task is carried out. The present findings bring us a step closer in understanding why and how an AB occurs, and how these temporal restrictions in selective attention can be overcome. © 2010 Wierda et al.




Wierda, S. M., van Rijn, H., Taatgen, N. A., & Martens, S. (2010). Distracting the Mind Improves Performance: An ERP Study. PLoS ONE, 5(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015024

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