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: Short-term memory of crows relies on different neural mechanisms than humans

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: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.05.009

Related Stories

Short-term memory of crows relies on different neural mechanisms than humans

June 5, 2014
German researchers discover neurons allowing crows to remember short-term – although their brains are different from ours.

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 ...

Stress breaks loops that hold short-term memory together: study

September 13, 2012
Stress has long been pegged as the enemy of attention, disrupting focus and doing substantial damage to working memory—the short-term juggling of information that allows us to do all the little things that make us productive.

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 ...

Recommended for you

Small but distinct differences among species mark evolution of human brain

November 23, 2017
The most dramatic divergence between humans and other primates can be found in the brain, the primary organ that gives our species its identity.

Team constructs whole-brain map of electrical connections key to forming memories

November 22, 2017
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has constructed the first whole-brain map of electrical connectivity in the brain based on data from nearly 300 neurosurgical patients with electrodes implanted ...

To forget or to remember? Memory depends on subtle brain signals, scientists find

November 22, 2017
The fragrance of hot pumpkin pie can bring back pleasant memories of holidays past, while the scent of an antiseptic hospital room may cause a shudder. The power of odors to activate memories both pleasing and aversive exists ...

Pitch imperfect? How the brain decodes pitch may improve cochlear implants

November 22, 2017
Picture yourself with a friend in a crowded restaurant. The din of other diners, the clattering of dishes, the muffled notes of background music, the voice of your friend, not to mention your own – all compete for your ...

New research suggests high-intensity exercise boosts memory

November 22, 2017
The health advantages of high-intensity exercise are widely known but new research from McMaster University points to another major benefit: better memory.

Schizophrenia originates early in pregnancy, 'mini-brain' research suggests

November 20, 2017
Symptoms of schizophrenia usually appear in adolescence or young adulthood, but new research reveals that the brain disease likely begins very early in development, toward the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. The ...

0 comments

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.