A major obstacle to high-level performance on a wide variety of goal-directed activities is interference by distractions. This interference can arise from the external environment, in the form of distracting sounds, images and smells, as well as from the internal milieu, as unwanted, intrusive thoughts. In concordance with recent theories on mind-wandering, we propose that all individuals have a tendency to automatically succumb to internal thoughts that are irrelevant to their ongoing goals, and that this is influenced by cognitive and emotional states and their surrounding environment. The degree to which they are capable of self-regulation of these internal distractions mediates the impact of this interference on goal-directed behavior. The objectives of the proposed research project are to evaluate the factors that impact self-regulation of internal distraction and the neural correlates that account for differences in self-regulation abilities across individuals and age groups, as well as the ability to learn to better self-regulate distraction. Specifically, we will explore how regulation of mind-wandering is influenced by task orientation (internal vs. external), and whether the presence of external distraction influences the regulation of internal distraction. We will evaluate if there are differences in executive function and neural networks that explain differences in these self-regulation abilities. Lastly, we assess the neural mechanisms by which self-regulation of internal distraction can be modified via practice. To accomplish these goals, we designed novel cognitive paradigms to evaluate the self-regulation of internal distraction, and the influence of the described factors, in both healthy younger and older adults. Next, using functional MRI, we will study the neural correlates of internal distraction regulation, as well as a failure to adequately suppress distractions. Finally, we utilize a novel distraction-training program, inspired by meditation practices and plasticity-based cognitive training, to study the neural basis of learning to self-regulate internal distraction. In addition, an extensive battery of cognitive tasks and real-life activity measures will be administered to evaluate correlates of these neural and experimentally-assessed distraction measures. We anticipate that the unique methodological approach and experimental design will significantly advance the limited work in this important area of self-regulation.

Public Health Relevance

Internal distractions are a well-recognized impediment to high-level performance on a wide variety of activities. The goal of this project is to understand the factors that influence the self-regulation of internal distraction, as well as the underlying neural mechanisms that govern this regulation and our ability to learn how to better self- regulate with practice. This knowledge will be used to further our understanding of basic principles underlying self-regulation, and to help design future interventions to improve abilities to regulate the impact of distractions in diverse populations.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Exploratory/Developmental Grants (R21)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-L (53))
Program Officer
Nielsen, Lisbeth
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of California San Francisco
Schools of Medicine
San Francisco
United States
Zip Code