Nearly everyone has experience of drifting off and making a mistake now and again. The consequences can range from annoying in a chess game to serious in a motor car and catastrophic in air traffic control. Researchers at the University of California, Davis used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure people's brain waves and try to work out what happens when people drift off and lose their attention. They scanned 14 students as they completed a very monotonous task, pressing buttons in response to numbers for an hour. Just before the students made a mistake the researchers noted an increase in alpha wave activity at the back of the head and an increase in mu wave activity in the sensorimotor cortex - rhythyms that occur when the brain is idling in neutral. Once a mistake had been made changes in brain waves at the front of the brain damped down activity at the back of the brain in order to boost attention. This new technique of brain-wave measurement could have the potential to measure attention in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - or air-traffic controllers.
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