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How Clutter Affects Ability to Focus

Thursday, January 23, 2014

by Erin Doland on Mar 29, 2011

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published the results of a study they conducted in the January issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that relates directly to uncluttered and organized living. From their report “Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex”:

Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

Or, to paraphrase in non-neuroscience jargon: When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy …” Even though you might be able to focus a little, you’re still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. The annoyance also wears down your mental resources and you’re more likely to become frustrated.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong — if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

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