Why it's hard to stay on task


Why do we find it so hard to stay on task for long? A recent study uses a new technique to show how the task control network and the default mode network interact (and fight each other for control).

The task control network (which includes the dorsal anterior cingulate and bilateral anterior insula) regulates attention to surroundings, controlling your concentration on tasks. The default mode network, on the other hand, becomes active when a person seems to be doing 'nothing', and becomes less active when a task is being performed.

The study shows that we work better and faster the better the default mode network is suppressed by the task control network. However, when the default mode network is not sufficiently suppressed by the task control network, it sends signals to the task control network, interfering with its performance (and we lose focus).

Interestingly, in certain conditions, such as autism, depression, and mild cognitive impairment, the default mode network remains unchanged whether the person is performing a task or interacting with the environment. Additionally, deficits in the functioning of the default mode network have been implicated in age-related cognitive decline.

The findings add a new perspective to our ideas about attention. One of the ongoing questions concerns the relative importance of the two main aspects of attention: focus, and resisting distraction. A lot of work in recent years has indicated that a large part of age-related cognitive decline is a growing difficulty in resisting distraction. Similarly, there is some evidence that people with a low working memory capacity are less able to ignore irrelevant information.

This recent finding, then, suggests that these difficulties in ignoring distracting / irrelevant stimuli reflect the failure of the task control network to adequately suppress the activity of the default mode network. This puts the emphasis back on training for focus, and may help explain why meditation practices are effective in improving concentration.


[3384] Wen, X., Liu Y., Yao L., & Ding M.
(2013).  Top-Down Regulation of Default Mode Activity in Spatial Visual Attention.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 33(15), 6444 - 6453.

Related News

Two independent studies have found that students whose birthdays fell just before their school's age enrollment cutoff date—making them among the youngest in their class—had a substantially higher rate of ADHD diagnoses than students who were born later.

I’ve talked about the importance of labels for memory, so I was interested to see that a recent series of experiments has found that hearing the name of an object improved people’s ability to see it, even when the object was flashed onscreen in conditions and speeds (50 milliseconds) that would

A rat study demonstrates how specialized brain training can reverse many aspects of normal age-related cognitive decline in targeted areas. The month-long study involved daily hour-long sessions of intense auditory training targeted at the primary auditory cortex.

It’s now well established that older brains tend to find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. But now a new study suggests that that isn’t all bad.

A paralyzed patient implanted with a brain-computer interface device has allowed scientists to determine the relationship between brain waves and attention. Recordings found a characteristic pattern of activity as the subject paid close attention to the task.

In another demonstration of the many factors that affect exam success, three experiments involving a total of 131 college students have found that seeing the letter A before an exam makes a student more likely to perform better than if he sees the letter F instead.

Another study showing the cognitive benefits of meditation has revealed benefits to perception and attention.

A new study suggests that our memory for visual scenes may not depend on how much attention we’ve paid to it or what a scene contains, but when the scene is presented.

An intriguing set of experiments showing how you can improve perception by manipulating mindset found significantly improved vision when:

A study of over 3,100 older men (49-71) from across Europe has found that men with higher levels of vitamin D performed consistently better in an attention and speed of processing task. There was no difference on visual memory tasks.


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health newsSubscribe to Latest news