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Study: Brief breaks improve performance

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Champaign, Ill. (UPI) Feb 9, 2011
Taking a break from a task requiring sustained attention can dramatically improve the ability to focus on the task for prolonged periods, U.S. researchers say.

The study by University of Illinois researchers overturns a long-held theory about the nature of attention and the phenomenon of decreasing focus and performance during long tasks, a university release said Tuesday.

Some researchers have believed this so-called vigilance decrement is the result of a drop in one's "attentional resources."

However, UI psychology Professor Alejandro Lleras says the new study contradicts that.

"For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong," Lleras says. "You start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it. But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem."

In the study, Lleras tested participants' ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour under various conditions.

One group, allowed to take two brief breaks from the task, was able to stay focused during the entire experiment, while other groups not allowed breaks tended to lose focus.

The study reinforces the idea the brain is built to detect and respond to change, Lleras says, and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.

"From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself," Lleras says. "Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task."

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