We agonise over how smartphones and social media have reduced our attention span and made us distractible in general. Turns out we human beings are naturally wired to be distractible in the first place. Indeed, new research shows that the human mind oscillates in and out of focus four times every second according to scientists at Princeton university, corroborated by similar findings from research at UC, Berkley. This means that we don’t actually see the world as registered by the brain. The brain in fact has to piece together several distinct frames at superfast speed into a motion picture of sorts, much like film making in the analog era. The research links this to evolution when human beings couldn’t afford to focus on just one thing in order to stay alert of any predatory threats.
“The findings are as much philosophical as they are scientific — enough to call into question our most basic understanding of reality into question. Both studies — one on humans by a team at the University of California Berkeley, and another on macaques done by scientists at Princeton University — sought to pin down how many times the human brain oscillates in and out of focus per minute. Four times every second, explains Princeton Neuroscience Institute Ian Fiebelkorn, Ph.D., to Inverse, the brain stops focusing on the task at hand. That’s about 240 times a minute.
“The brain is wired to be somewhat distractible,” he says. “We focus in bursts, and between those bursts we have these periods of distractibility, that’s when the brain seems to check in on the rest of the environment outside to see if there’s something important going on elsewhere. These rhythms are affecting our behavior all the time.”
To understand these “rhythms of attention,” Fiebelkorn suggests imagining standing in Times Square on New Years’ Eve, surrounded by people, cars, and music. The scene presents far more sensory information than one human brain is capable of sorting through, and so, the brain deals with all of the information in two ways. First, it focuses on a single point of interest: the street corner where you might meet a friend, or Ryan Seacrest combing the crowd for interviews. Like a filmstrip, the brain takes snapshots of these moments and pieces them together into a cohesive narrative, or “perceptual cycle.”
We experience that moment as continuous, but in reality, we’ve only sampled certain elements of the environment around us. It feels continuous because our brains have filled in the gaps for us, explains Berkeley’s Knight Lab researcher and first author Randolph Helfrich, Ph.D. to Inverse.”
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