The brain is often good at ignoring distractions, but how exactly does it do that?

New research done by Brown University recently unveiled the mystery: specific processes in the brain help humans ignore those things that often distract them.

Researchers hope that their findings will someday be used for figuring out how to ignore other things, too, such as pain.

"This is about the mechanisms the brain is using to block out distracting things in the environment," says Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of neuroscience at the university.

The experiments behind this research looked at brain scans from 12 people. Researchers told the volunteers that they would feel a tap on their hand or on their foot. Researchers told some volunteers to only report the tap on their hand, while others were told to only report the tap on their foot. The ignored sensations created the distraction that researchers wanted to study.

During the experiment, researchers hooked volunteers up to magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans and measured brain wave frequencies in specific parts of the brain: the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for processing sensations in the hand, as well as the right inferior frontal cortex (rIFC), which is that part of the brain thought responsible for blocking out and suppressing information.

In their results, when people reported only touch in their foot, they saw more activity in the rIFC than the somatosensory cortex. This suggests that as those volunteers ignored sensations in their hand, their brain's rIFC suppressed signals to make that happen.

This same research team also reported findings in 2013 when they learned that meditation prevents depression and reduces chronic pain. In that study, they learned that meditation allowed volunteers to manipulate alpha rhythms in the somatosensory cortex of the brain.

Using the knowledge gained from these two studies, the team is now working with a psychiatrist in researching transcranial alternating electrical stimulation, with hope that their findings can help the brain ignore and suppress pain.

"This is part of a really cool effort at Brown to see if you can take pretty high-level cognitive questions, find the relevant areas in the brain, and then figure out how to put that in a context with the underlying neurophysiology, at the level of computational models and animal models," says Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of family medicine in the Alpert Medical School at Brown. "We're linking different ways of looking at the brain that don't usually come into dialogue with one another."

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