Why Blue Light Specials Can't be Ignored

Mind is easily distracted by rewarding objects

(RxWiki News) A blue light starts flashing, accompanied by an appealing siren sound. An overhead announcer blares, "Blue light special on aisle 7." K-mart has it right - once conditioned, our minds can't ignore rewarding objects.

In a Johns Hopkins study, researchers discovered that people have a hard time ignoring things that have a perceived value - even if  those things are unimportant. A team of neuroscientists hope that understanding how our attention is captured and held may lead to new ways to help people battle addiction, attention disorders and even obesity.

"Things that are seen as rewarding capture and hold our attention."

Lead investigator Steven Yantis, professor and chair of psychological and brain sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, says that it's well known that not everyone who takes drugs gets addicted. Still, there is some connection between how the brain's response to experiencing a euphoria caused by the drugs. This phenomenon "rewires" the brain and sets up a craving that's hard to suppress, he explains.

To investigate the relationship, Yantis and colleagues showed  study participants a group of symbols on a computer. They were asked to find red and green circles in an array of different colored circles. Each red or green object was followed by a monetary reward, say 10 cents or 1 cent. Participants did this search for about an hour.

They were next asked to seek out specific shapes, without regard to color. Some of the items that occasionally appeared were red and green. When this happened, responses slowed down, indicating that the participants were distracted by and drawn to pay attention to the colors that were previously associated with a value.

This changed response made it clear  that the red or green items attracted attention because they were linked to a reward, Yantis says. He said this distraction lasted for weeks after the study.

Commenting on the findings, Yantis says "this form of attentional capture may" be involved in various addiction syndromes.

Study findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Review Date: 
June 9, 2011