Let’s try a classical psychology test! As quickly and accurately as you can, name the colours of the following words:

 

Stroop test straight

 

Straightforward, yes? Let’s try again – as quickly and accurately as you can, name the colours without reading the words:

 

Stroop test reverse

 

A bit tougher, wasn’t it? If you’re accidentally naming the word rather than the colour, you are not alone! This Stroop task is more difficult when the colours and text words don’t match.

This is an example of interference in which a well-practiced skill (reading) disrupts a less common activity (colour naming).

A leading theory for this Stoop effect is that reading is largely automatic, meaning that it often occurs despite conscious control. (Consider accidentally reading a spoiler for your favourite TV show - you don’t want to read but it’s already too late!).

Controlling your attention

A key issue may be that reading involves dedicated neural pathways linking language comprehension and speech production brain centres (e.g., Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas), occupying the brain’s power required for the task.

When we exert control (e.g., naming the colour rather than reading the word), oxygen consumption changes within particular prefrontal cortical regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Because these regions are outside classical language areas, these results provide support for a consensus theory: a dedicated attention system of the brain exists as an interconnected regions of prefrontal and parietal cortical areas, and this system deals with distraction by exercising control.

QBI researchers are investigating the attention system of humans, animals and even robots using modern scientific techniques such as brain-computer interfaces (connecting brains with machines), optogenetics (activating the brain of insects using laser light) and artificial intelligence (decoding the brain signal). The goal is to better understand conditions leading to interference and to train people to better exercise control.