Distractions in our visual environment can impede our brains’ ability to function

By Sameer A. Khan

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,” Albert Einstein once cracked, “of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” The answer, according to psychology professor Sabine Kastner, maybe clear thinking. In 20 years of research on attention, Kastner has found that, despite the protests of Einstein, Steve Jobs, and other messy creative thinkers, visual clutter competes with our brain’s ability to pay attention and tires out our cognitive functions over time.

The journey to that conclusion started one day in 2008 when Kastner was crossing Washington Road on her way to Nassau Hall for a meeting. Realizing she was automatically scanning for cars before she crossed the street, she wondered how the brain so quickly differentiated cars from other things in the environment. When she researched the phenomenon, “it became apparent that this basic question had gone completely unanswered,” she says.

The problem for researchers was that they had difficulty replicating the chaos of our random world in the lab; they used simple, easily recognizable shapes in experiments to see how the brain reacted. Kastner exposed subjects to the full variation of a random environment by showing them a selection of street scenes and asking them to focus either on a person or a car, while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine measured their brain activity.

The scans showed clear patterns of activity in the frontal cortex, indicating that the neurons were activated based not on what subjects were seeing, but rather on what they were looking for. “Whatever you look for dominates your brain signals so much that all of the scene contexts get suppressed,” she says. Once you think “car,” your brain automatically blocks out everything else and homes in on that specific shape.

Kastner’s subsequent studies found that the brain may not be good at blocking clutter. When she asked subjects to focus on one object while introducing another object into their visual field, Kastner detected a fuzzy version of that second object in the brain scan. In any environment, she concluded, there is both a “push” toward desired objects and a “pull” from objects competing for attention. The more objects in the visual field, the harder the brain has to work to filter them out, causing it to tire over time and reducing its ability to function.

Such a mechanism may shed light on the brains of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “The way it is typically framed is that a child with ADHD has a problem focusing,” says Kastner. “Perhaps the real problem is that the child is overwhelmed by the clutter that gets in the way.” That is why strategies that reduce sensory overload, such as breaking tasks into discrete steps, are helpful to children with ADHD. But such techniques can help anyone who has trouble concentrating, Kastner says. Just lowering the shades while working or taking a few minutes to tidy one’s workspace can lead to more productivity, she advises. To reconsider Einstein, a clean desk may not signify an empty mind — rather, a cluttered desk may make a mind too full.

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