Imagine how many times your attention was distracted by the surrounding sounds or sights irrelevant to your work or study. To maintain concentrated, you have to control yourself intentionally, which is the so-called attentional control or cognitive control in psychology. An interesting question arises, when we successfully directed our attention away from a visual distractor, can we be immune to other auditory distractors? According to a recent study by Dr. Liu Xun’s group from Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the answer is NO, unfortunately.
In this study, college students were asked to judge certain characters or figures displayed along with visual or auditory distractors. For example, in the arrow judgment task, an up arrow may be displayed with a character down or a sound of “down” at the same time. To answer the question whether controlling visual distractors could help the control of auditory ones, the researchers examined a phenomenon called conflict adaptation (CA). The CA effect refers to that conflict resolution in a previous trial facilitates resolution of the ongoing conflict. The key idea was, if the conflict control for one modality would generalize to another, we should have observed the facilitation across two modalities, in other words, CA effects were present across visual and auditory modalities. However, this study found that no CA effect was observed when the subsequent conflict came from a different modality. These results informed us that the capacity of controlling distractors could not generalize from one modality to another.
What can we learn from this study? One thing to keep in mind is, we should not overestimate our ability to adapt to the rapidly changing world with multi-modality information. It also enlightens us that a successful attention training should contain distractors from different modalities. In the future, neuroscientists may focus on uncovering how our brain represents and resolves conflicts rising from different modalities, as well as why cognitive control fails to generalize across different situations.
Yang, G., Nan, W., Zheng, Y., Wu, H., Li, Q., & Liu, X. (2017). Distinct cognitive control mechanisms as revealed by modality-specific conflict adaptation effects. Journal of experimental psychology: human perception and performance, 43(4), 807.
Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences