Brain directs traffic to stay on task

UC DAVIS (US) — Just like a road sign alerts us to merging traffic ahead, the brain can change its connections to minimize distraction and take advantage of what we know of the situation at hand.

“In order to behave efficiently, you want to process relevant sensory information as fast as possible, but relevance is determined by your current situation,” says Joy Geng, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

When concentrating on a specific task, it’s helpful to reconfigure brain networks so that task-relevant information is processed most efficiently and external distractions are reduced, Geng says.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows specific areas of the brain that are activated when volunteers focus on a task. (Credit: Joy Geng)


For a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Geng and co-author Nicholas DiQuattro, a graduate student in psychology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in volunteers carrying out a simple test and compared the results to mathematical models to infer connectivity between different areas of the brain.

The subjects had to look for a letter “T” in a box and indicate which way it faced by pressing a button. They were also presented with a “distractor”: another letter T in a box, but rotated 90 degrees that was either similar in appearance to the target, or brightened to be more attention-getting.

Subjects did better in trials with an “attention-getting” distractor than a less obvious one, and lit up specific areas of the brain accordingly.

The new work shows that the brain doesn’t always “ramp up” to deal with the situation at hand, Geng says. Instead, it changes how traffic moves through the existing hard-wired network—rather like changing water flow through a network of pipes or information flow over a computer network—in order to maximize efficiency.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

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