Easily distracted humans may have "too much brain"

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) have determined that those easily distracted while attempting to complete a task may have too much brain, or grey matter.

Ryota Kanai, study leader and a researcher from UCL, and a team of researchers, have investigated distractibility and found that those who demonstrate a lack of focused attention during a project have larger volumes of grey matter in specific parts of the brain than those who are not easily distracted. 

Kanai and his research team came to this conclusion by assembling a team of volunteers and putting them through a series of tests that emphasize their level of distraction. The tests involved quizzing participants on how often they go into grocery stores for a certain item and become distracted to the point forgetting to buy that item, how often they notice road signs, etc. 

As you might've guessed, the most distracted participants received the highest score. Using the knowledge of who is most distractible and who isn't in the group of volunteers, researchers used an MRI scanner to image the participants' brains. These results showed that the easily distracted volunteers had a larger volume of grey matter in an area of the brain known as the left superior parietal lobe (SPL) while those who are less easily distracted had a normal volume of grey matter.  

From there, researchers set out to test whether this noticeable difference was really, in fact, the reason some people are more distracted than others. To do this, Kanai and his team asked 15 volunteers to perform certain tasks that were timed and contained distractions. Their level of distractibility was gauged on the time it took to complete the task. The team then used a handheld magnet to dampen the activity in a part of the brain beneath the left SPL for a half hour in a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation. 

During that half hour, researchers asked the participants to perform the same tasks as before. The results showed that the time it took to complete the task increased by about 25 percent. According to Kanai, this shows that the left SPL plays a role in "top-down control of attention," and that the left SPL tries to overcome distraction. 

It is unclear why the left SPL works this way, but Kanai hypothesizes that more grey matter may demonstrate a less mature brain, which may indicate a mild developmental malfunction. But Kanai is working to improve levels of attention in those with a greater volume of grey matter by using transcranial direct current stimulation, which stimulates the area by sending an inconspicuous electrical current to the left SPL via electrodes on the head. 

This study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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