I’ve written previously about how people don’t have a cognitive limit on how long they can concentrate. Now, Alejandro Lleras and Atsunori Ariga from the University of Illinois have found that occasional breaks from a task actually improve one’s concentration.
After prolonged periods, most people find their attention beginning to wane. Lleras and Ariga wondered if this was due to a phenomenon known as ‘habituation’. Over time, we cease to notice stimuli that were once very strong. For example, we may stop hearing trains going by or feeling our jewelry against our skin. This holds true for visual input as well, we may stop seeing things that are constantly present. Lleras and Ariga proposed that this phenomenon would hold true for thoughts as well.
As Lleras explains:
If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!
The researchers tested this hypothesis by dividing 84 volunteers into four groups. All were given a 50 minute long computerized task to perform. The first group got no diversions. The other three groups were given a set of four digits prior to the task. Groups two and three were told to respond if they saw any of those digits during the task, but only group two ever encountered the digits. Group four was told to ignore the digits.
Only group two did not show a decrease in concentration over the 50 minute period. This was the only group to switch its attention from the main task to attend to the side task (responding to the digits). Those two brief shifts in attention were enough to allow the participants to resume their main task with full concentration.The scientists suggest that taking short mental breaks may help people to remain focused on their tasks. However, I should point out that the breaks need only be fleeting to achieve the desired effect. Going skiing for the weekend is not necessary.