Do you think you study better when music is playing? Are you a great multi-tasker? Or do you shut out all external distractions and focus in on the matter at hand, ignoring everything around you? New research on brain activity and our response to distractions might surprise you.
The subject of 18th and 19th century literature rarely collides with brain scans and enormous magnetic resonance imaging machines. Nonetheless, Dr. Natalie Phillips used her background in literature to illuminate how our mind works when browsing compared to focusing. Even she was surprised by the results.
It occurred to Dr. Phillips that distractability was a theme in her literature and her own life. She frequently forgets mundane daily details, but can study a 300 year-old passage of literature with a laser focus, to the exclusion of all else. Her question: could she measure any differences in brain activity between casual browsing and the close-read concentration that she practiced?
Neuroscientists warned her that differences between the two levels of concentration were probably so minute as to escape detection. The results were very different. They found that the entire brain became involved when the subjects were concentrating on their reading. While browsing a literary passage triggered very little brain response, full-on concentration triggered involvement from nearly every area of the brain.
Beyond the areas of the brain responsible for interpreting visual input, plus reasoning centers that probably amass the literature’s meaning, the parts of the brain that provide motor control and tactile feedback became active. Dr. Phillips hypothesizes that the readers were imagining themselves in the story – physically as well as vicariously.
So the next time you need to really absorb some new material, try turning off that iPod, silencing your text messages and letting your entire mind join you as you dive into the story!