Using functional MRI machines researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway detected how the brain sails off on its own course during mental activity, a process that produces inattention and leads to mistakes.
The recordings revealed a cascade of shifting activity in the parts of the brain associated with focusing attention and maintaining routines. Researchers observed test subjects’ minds going on autopilot up to half a minute before the subjects actually made mistakes, even though the subjects weren’t aware of their own lapses of attention.
If the same mechanisms produce other, more meaningful errors — slips on the assembly line or behind a steering wheel — then the research could be used to design biofeedback systems that could catch mistakes before they’re made.
“People could be made aware that they’re not in the best condition to be working. Or people might learn to identify their ‘bad’ brain state,” said study co-author Tom Eichele, a neuroscientist at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Up to 30 seconds before Eichele’s test subjects carelessly said that an arrow pointing in one direction was pointing in another, blood flow decreased in their posterior medial frontal cortex, a brain region associated with sustaining effort and focus.
At the same time, activity increased in the so-called default mode network — a region of the brain spanning the precuneus, retrosplenial cortex and anterior medial frontal cortex. The default mode network is associated with maintaining baseline routines, and tends to be most active during sleep and sedation.