Facebook, Buzzfeed, Twitter — how often do people end up on sites like these when working on an essay or problem set? A recent Yale study on distractibility may provide answers about what is happening in the brain when attention strays from the task at hand.

Researchers asked participants to look at various photos of faces surrounded by a landscape, telling them to press a button if the image that appeared was different from faces shown previously. In low-load work, which requires less mental focus, subjects were more easily distracted than they were while participating in high-load work. The study sought to explore key questions about how and why attention wavers from work, what that looks like in the brain, and if there is a reliable way to actually predict levels of distraction for different tasks.

“When someone’s doing a task, sometimes they’re going to space out and make an error, sometimes they’re really focused, and other times you’re kind of in the middle,” said Yale psychology graduate student and the study’s lead author Monica Rosenberg GRD ’18. “I was curious if you could tell in every trial or every few seconds how engaged someone is in the task.”

Researchers ran three trials, each about eight minutes in length for a total in-lab time of about a half-hour. The low-load level flashed crisp, clear pictures before the participants and asked them to refrain from pressing the button only if the face was different from the one that had been featured immediately before. The working memory load — which requires more focus than the low-load level — asked participants to refrain from pressing the button if the face was different from either of the two ones that had appeared before, effectively forcing participants to use more working memory than when recalling only the face that appeared directly before. The high-load introduced another element by adding graininess to the photos the participants looked at, making it more difficult for participants to distinguish facial features between different photos.

Previous research has showed that participants pay less attention to the landscape surrounding faces when images are blurry, Rosenberg said, noting that participants in those situations can no longer afford to let their attention wander.

Though past studies have looked at how people pay attention, less work has been done on fluctuations within attention span, Rosenberg said. This study addresses those fluctuations — the researchers measured attention within the different tasks instead of simply quantifying participants’ average attention over the entire course of their time in the lab.

The research holds implications for mental disorders in which attention is a significant issue and, perhaps more interesting to college students, implications for working effectively. People’s chances of being “in the zone” are actually better when engaged in difficult tasks like essay writing, than when they are engaged in mundane, low-level ones like checking email, Rosenberg said.

Looking to future work, Rosenberg said she wants to focus on prediction, extrapolating from data to see how focused participants will be when they complete attention tasks. Some laboratories are beginning to collect and release a wide variety of general data to researchers, making prediction work easier by providing the sheer amount of information necessary.

Americans spend an average of 40 minutes a day on Facebook.