Monday, April 21, 2008

Pay Attention! Brain Scanners Detect Slip-Ups Before You Do

A mindless mistake on a monotonous task may feel like a momentary glitch, but its mental roots run deep.

In a study [by Tom Eichele, a neuroscientist at the University of Bergen in Norway] published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used fMRI machines to record neurological patterns preceding careless errors.

The recordings revealed a cascade of shifting activity in the parts of the brain associated with focusing attention and maintaining routines. Researchers observed test subjects' minds going on autopilot up to half a minute before the subjects actually made mistakes, even though the subjects weren't aware of their own lapses of attention. …

Up to 30 seconds before Eichele's test subjects carelessly said that an arrow pointing in one direction was pointing in another, blood flow decreased in their posterior medial frontal cortex, a brain region associated with sustaining effort and focus.

At the same time, activity increased in the so-called default mode network — a region of the brain spanning the precuneus, retrosplenial cortex and anterior medial frontal cortex. The default mode network is associated with maintaining baseline routines, and tends to be most active during sleep and sedation.

In short, the conscious brain started to shut down while the system usually responsible for preventing that failed.

"This matches with our subjective perception of making mistakes on a boring task," said Michael Fox, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study. "As time goes on, you get more and more bored, and that builds up until you screw up. This study shows that scientifically.

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