Do not disturb: How the brain filters out distractions

July 4, 2014

You know the feeling? You are trying to dial a phone number from memory… you have to concentrate…. then someone starts shouting out other numbers nearby. In a situation like that, your brain must ignore the distraction as best it can so as not to lose vital information from its working memory. A new paper published in Neuron by a team of neurobiologists led by Professor Andreas Nieder at the University of Tübingen gives insight into just how the brain manages this problem.

The researchers put in a similar situation. The monkeys had to remember the number of dots in an image and reproduce the knowledge a moment later. While they were taking in the information, a was introduced, showing a different number of dots. And even though the monkeys were mostly able to ignore the distraction, their concentration was disturbed and their memory performance suffered.

Measurements of the electrical activity of in two key areas of the showed a surprising result: nerve cells in the signaled the distraction while it was being presented, but immediately restored the remembered information (the number of dots) once the distraction was switched off. In contrast, nerve cells in the parietal cortex were unimpressed by the distraction and reliably transmitted the information about the correct number of dots.

These findings provide important clues about the strategies and division of labor among different parts of the brain when it comes to using the working memory. "Different parts of the brain appear to use different strategies to filter out distractions," says Dr. Simon Jacob, who carried out research in Tübingen before switching to the Psychiatric Clinic at the Charité hospitals in Berlin. "Nerve cells in the parietal cortex simply suppress the distraction, while nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex allow themselves to be momentarily distracted – only to return immediately to the truly important memory content."

The researchers were surprised by the two brain areas' difference in sensitivity to distraction. "We had assumed that the prefrontal cortex is able to filter out all kinds of distractions, while the was considered more vulnerable to disturbances," says Professor Nieder. "We will have to rethink that. The memory-storage tasks and the strategies of each brain area are distributed differently from what we expected."

Explore further: Regulation of attention and concentration in brain unravelled

More information: Simon Jacob, Andreas Nieder: Complementary Roles for Primate Frontal and Parietal Cortex in Guarding Working Memory from Distractor Stimuli. Neuron, 2 July 2014, DOI:

Related Stories

Regulation of attention and concentration in brain unravelled

August 11, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- The prefrontal cortex of the brain is involved in memory processes and the ability to concentrate attentively. Neuroscientists from VU University Amsterdam have shown how and where this occurs in the prefrontal ...

Shout now! How nerve cells initiate voluntary calls

September 6, 2013

"Should I say something or not?" Human beings are not alone in pondering this dilemma – animals also face decisions when they communicate by voice. University of Tübingen neurobiologists Dr. Steffen Hage and Professor ...

Synchronized brain waves enable rapid learning

June 12, 2014

The human mind can rapidly absorb and analyze new information as it flits from thought to thought. These quickly changing brain states may be encoded by synchronization of brain waves across different brain regions, according ...

Recommended for you

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...

Wireless sensor enables study of traumatic brain injury

November 23, 2015

A new system that uses a wireless implant has been shown to record for the first time how brain tissue deforms when subjected to the kind of shock that causes blast-induced trauma commonly seen in combat veterans.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.