We're Not Actually Conscious That Many Times per Minute

We're "wired to be distractible." 

Though we experience reality as a continuous narrative, scientists have revealed that we’re only really getting tiny snapshots of the world around us. This summer, two papers released in Neuron showed us exactly how often our brain is actually focusing each second and how that helps us piece together our perceptions of the world.

Previous studies on human attention have shown that the brain is constantly stitching together bits and pieces of the world around us, like pictures in a film strip. These two papers, one on macaques and one on humans, illuminated how our brains capture all that raw footage that we experience as reality: Our focus flickers in and out multiple times each second.

This is #5 on Inverse‘s 25 Most Surprising Human Discoveries Made in 2018..

consciousness study
An illustration of how Fiebelkorn and Randolph believe the brain collects information. 

Neuroscientist Ian Fiebelkorn, Ph.D., an associate research scientist at Princeton University and author of the macaque study, explained to Inverse that about four times each second our brains stop focusing on the task at hand, whether that’s driving or watching Into the Spiderverse, and begin to collect “background information” about the environment.

“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,” Fiebelkorn said. “These rhythms are affecting our behavior all the time.”

Fiebelkorn noticed these “rhythms of attention” by analyzing brain scans in macaques who performed a computer task. At some points, his study participants seemed hyper-concentrated on the task, but at other times, their brains seemed to wander. These findings were reinforced by the work of Randolph Helfrich, Ph.D., on humans at UC Berkeley’s Knight Lab, in which he found a similar pattern that occurred about every 250 milliseconds.

Together, these findings suggested that our built-in distractedness was once advantageous for early humans, whose brains were constantly taking in information about the environment where predators might be lurking. Today, though, Randolph adds that being constantly distracted might be less helpful:

“Think about trying to do three things at a time. You’re trying to drive, you have coffee, you’re on the phone, and all of the sudden this means that you’re the constant switching between those things. If you drop your attention, that is enough to cause an accident.”

No matter how hard we try to stay focused, their work provides even more evidence that we’re fighting a losing battle. It turns out that we’re “wired to be distractable.”

As 2018 winds down, Inverse is highlighting 25 surprising things we learned about humans this year. These stories told us weird stuff about our bodies and brains, uncovered insights into our social lives, and illuminated why we’re such complicated, wonderful, and weird animals. This story was #5. Read the original story here.