Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered that negative distractions interferes with your working memory and goal focus, but positive distractions may help.
This finding has implications for improving working memory and goal focus, building resilience, and reducing anxiety and mood disorders.
You’re at work with your cell phone glued to your ear and while you’re talking you come up with a couple of good ideas for a project. Suddenly you get a text message that tells you that your last purchase did not process due to an issue with your card. Do you remember the project ideas you came up with?
Rewind the situation and, instead of the text being a negative distractor you get a text that is from a friend thanking you warmly for helping them with their children a month ago – a positive distractor. Do you remember the project ideas now?
In both scenarios you are using your working memory to try to keep in mind the project ideas while you’re finishing your conversation. In both scenarios there’s a distraction (the text message). One is positive, the other is negative.
Most previous studies have concentrated on how negative distractions (an annoying text message) impact our ability to complete a task. But few studies have focused on how positive distractions (a thank you text) impact that ability.
“We knew from previous investigations that negative distractions interfere with our ability to stay focused on the task at hand. However, we didn’t know what happens with positive distractions in terms of performance and the brain mechanisms.” Iordan, co-author
Study participants were shown images of people’s faces and were asked to hold them in mind for a few seconds. After a short delay, they were tested on how well they recognized the faces. During the delay, the participants were shown a mixture of positive, neutral, and negative images.
fMRI imaging recorded the brain regions activated when the distracting images were shown.
The researchers discovered that both positive and negative images affect the brain, but that positive distractions are linked to increased performance compared to negative distractions.
A thank you text grabs your attention, but will not interfere with your project ideas. It may in fact help you remember them.
“The main result is that the positive distractions do not interfere with working memory performance. In fact, they actually help compared to the negative distractions, even though they may produce equally intense emotional responses.” Iordan, co-author
Brain Activity Explanation
The researchers found changes in two brain regions that are involved in working memory and attention, the dorso-lateral (above and to the side) prefrontal and the lateral (to the side) parietal cortices.
These areas are active and stay in tune with each other when we try to keep information, ideas or plans in mind.
Negative distractions strongly reduced activity in these regions.
Positive distractions, however, had less impact on activity in these regions and increased activity in the ventro-lateral (below and to the side) prefrontal cortex, an area associated with emotion control and the ability to cope with distraction (shown here).
This has an evolutionary explanation: Negative evens unrelated to what we are currently focused on are often threats. Changing priorities in goals and re-setting working memory for threats will have more survival value than resetting your mental workspace with out-of-the-blue positive events.
Interventions for building resilience and prevent anxiety and depression
The researchers in this study hope that they can develop interventions to change the response of the brain to negative distractors, to help people deal with emotional challenges, build resilience and treat anxiety and depression.
For strengthening resilience
“These areas, together with others identified in our research, could be used as markers to be monitored in interventions that target improved responses that reduce the impact of emotional challenges,” Dolcos, lead researcher.
For helping prevent anxiety or mood disorders
“It is important to find such markers for both positive and negative emotions, because they are both changed in depression and anxiety, which are characterized by increased sensitivity to negative emotions and reduced response to positive emotions. A lot of what we do in our research is about prevention. We can identify such markers in people who are healthy but might be at risk, and then target these markers in interventions. We all know that, in the long run, we are better off also preventing than intervening only when people are already sick. This is also the case with emotional disorders, such as depression and anxiety” Dolos, lead researcher
Implementation in IQ Mindware apps
The dual n-back training in IQ Mindware apps incorporates positive distractors in the form of positive emotion feedback with correct responses. This training feature increases activation in the ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex and based on this research is expected to promote emotion control and the ability to cope with distraction.
IQ Mindware’s emotional dual n-back (in both i9 and EQPro) incorporates emotional content into the dual n-back working memory training itself. These apps are an implementation of Schweitzer’s emotional dual n-back that increases the efficiency of the goal focus network as well as other brain regions underlying emotion control. But while Schweitzer’s emotional dual n-back only builds in negative distractors, i9 builds in both negative and positive distractors.
This training helps with building resilience, preventing stress-related disorders, and helping reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
About this research
Original Research: Abstract for “Brain Activity and Network Interactions Linked to Valence-Related Differences in the Impact of Emotional Distraction” by A. D. Iordan and F. Dolcos in Cerebral Cortex. Published online November 4 2015 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv242
Brain Activity and Network Interactions Linked to Valence-Related Differences in the Impact of Emotional Distraction
Previous investigations showed that the impact of negative distraction on cognitive processing is linked to increased activation in a ventral affective system (VAS) and simultaneous deactivation in a dorsal executive system (DES). However, less is known about the influences of positive valence and different arousal levels on these effects. FMRI data were recorded while participants performed a working memory (WM) task, with positive and negative pictures presented as distractors during the delay between the memoranda and probes. First, positive distraction had reduced impact on WM performance, compared with negative distraction. Second, fMRI results identified valence-specific effects in DES regions and overlapping arousal and valence effects in VAS regions, suggesting increased impact of negative distraction and enhanced engagement of coping mechanisms for positive distraction. Third, a valence-related rostro-caudal dissociation was identified in medial frontal regions associated with the default-mode network (DMN). Finally, these DMN regions showed increased functional connectivity with DES regions for negative compared with positive distraction. Overall, these findings suggest that, while both positive and negative distraction engage partly similar arousal-dependent mechanisms, their differential impact on WM performance is linked to dissociations in the engagement of, and coupling between, regions associated with emotion processing and higher lever cognitive control.