A new study by Simon Fraser University researchers has found that differences in an individual's working memory capacity correlate with the brain's ability to actively ignore distraction.
Published this week in the journal PNAS, a research team led by psychology professor John McDonald and doctoral student John Gaspar used EEG technology to determine that while 'high-capacity' individuals (those who perform well on memory tasks) are able to suppress distractors, 'low-capacity' individuals are unable to suppress them in time to prevent them from grabbing their attention.
"Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments, and has been associated with attentional deficits, so these results have important implications," says McDonald, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience.
The study is linked to two previous papers in 2009 and 2014 in which McDonald's research team showed that when people search the visual world for a particular object, the brain has distinct mechanisms for both locking attention onto relevant information and for suppressing irrelevant information.
The study is the first to relate these specific visual-search mechanisms to memory and show that the suppression mechanism is absent in individuals with low memory capacity.
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Gaspar, J. M., Christie, G. J., Prime, D. J., Jolicœur, P., & McDonald, J. J. (2016). Inability to suppress salient distractors predicts low visual working memory capacity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201523471.