With the help of visual analysis of the brains of subjects who are engaged in discerning attention to certain sensations, researchers are beginning to map out how the brain coordinates specific responses in order to ignore distractions.
A new and exciting study is questioning whether we can gain more control over which sensations we choose to pay attention to, and one of these sensations in question is pain.
More concentration in one area = less concentration in another
When we concentrate on one thing, we subsequently take away the brain’s ability to focus on something else. In other words, we choose to ignore something at the expense of focusing attention elsewhere. A new report published in the Journal of Neuroscience is centered around the concept of “optimal inattention,” and it hopes to develop our ability to reduce and even ignore pain.
We can actively ignore external sensations
The study from Brown University scanned the brains of 12 volunteers who participated in experiments where they would feel a tap on both their left big toe and left middle finger. Sometimes they were tasked with recording the toe stimuli and ignoring the finger stimuli, and other times they were tasked with the opposite.
Using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans the researchers measured the intensity and timing of the subject’s brain activity in certain brain regions. They noticed synchronisation in brain waves between the somatosensory cortex (touch processing) and the right inferior frontal cortex (attention suppression) during the periods where the subjects were told to ignore a certain sensation.
It has already been noted that people can learn to manipulate the electrical activity in their somatosensory cortex by switching their attention focus. These new results expound on those findings by mapping how signals connect the somatosensory cortex to the frontal cortex in a coordination of inattention and active ignoring of stimuli.
The scientists are now testing whether they can train people in “optimal inattention” to ignore depressing thoughts in an attempt to bring about pain relief. One of these techniques is through mindfulness meditation therapy.
These results allow them to continue exploring ways in which we can train our brains to block out environmental distractions and consciously choose what it is we want to focus our attention on.