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Sidetracked by food: New study connects obesity with distraction

Yakobchuk Viacheslav /

In a recent study of obese adolescents, behavior expert Steven Woltering found that body mass affects how distracted you are by food, and how long it takes you to refocus after that distraction.

Woltering is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. He studies self-regulation, or the ability to control your attention and emotions, which is crucial for developing reasoning and emotional awareness.

His recent study observed the attention-blink paradigm — a pause in the brain’s ability to “see” or notice its surroundings when stimulated by things that hold high value to us.

He said the attention blink can be short but the more important the stimulus, the longer the blink lasts. 

The stimulus in this research was food. Woltering and his team observed 40 adolescents ranging from normal weight to obese according to their body mass index. 

The participants were monitored through a net of electrodes and showed a series of 17 images of items such as a chair or a knife and then an image of a high-calorie food such as a burger. They were then asked to identify what an image that came after the food was.

Findings show the higher in body mass the adolescent was, the longer it took for them to notice the next image after they were shown the food.