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What Your Brain Is Doing When You Focus

This might change how you learn.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

New research suggests that we get better at tasks in two stages of focus. First, the brain learns what to pay attention to, then the brain learns to tune out the white noise of everything else.

It’s a finding that could have a big impact on how we approach learning. It suggests that, even when we’re not sure that we’re still improving at a task, we should stay focused on it, since a second, long-term process of focused learning might be occurring.

In the study, researchers asked participants to play a simple computer game where they tried to distinguish the contrast levels of flashing black and white circles. At first, brain activity surged—participants made sense of the game, and tried to figure out what they should focus on. Then their brain activity declined, yet their ability to process the game still improved.

Sirawaj Itthipuripat, the paper’s lead author and a PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego, tells The Verge that this decline in neural activity signals that the brain was learning to reduce the attention devoted to parts of the game that were unnecessary to succeeding. The better the player got at the game—the more they knew what to focus on—the less their brain had to work. It’s kind of like how, when you master the rules of a complex card game—bridge, let’s say—you can exert less and less energy in playing it.

Interested? Learn more about the study here.

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