Feeling irritated? Getting blown off course by the emails pinging into your inbox, or the six open tabs in your web browser? Take a deep breath…but also, if you can, take a nap.
A Dutch researcher named Harm Veling has conducted research into distraction and concluded that the state of being tired compromises the ability of a person’s brain to filter out distracting stimuli. Veling gave standard tests, in which words to be remembered are interspersed with ‘distracting’ extraneous words, to normal subjects and to subjects who were mentally tired. He found that normal subjects are able to exclude distracting words from being remembered, but that tired subjects lose that ability. Further, blocking out distractions seems to eventually make a brain tired:
According to the press release,
People who were mentally fatigued were no longer able to suppress the distraction. Moreover they scored less well in their task. Suppression is therefore not automatic and costs energy. A humorous example of the principles Veling investigated is the Dutch TV quiz programme Rad van Fortuin (Wheel of Fortune). The candidates of this quiz are brutally distracted whilst answering the questions and can therefore scarcely answer the simplest of questions
—which just might explain why contestants on American game shows with lots of flashing lights and fog machines (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, for example), can seem a little obtuse.
Veling’s research was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.