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Brain Matter: How our attention can be affected by food

Brain Matter: How our attention can be affected by food
May 7, 2021 Justin Elizalde

Brain Matter: How our attention can be affected by food

In a recent study of obese adolescents, behavior expert Dr. 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.

“Imagine yourself strolling through a busy shopping mall during the summer with your partner. Whether you like it or not, your attention may be grabbed by an ice cream store, whereas your partner may not even notice those sweet and refreshing delicacies,” Woltering said. 

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. 

Woltering said the key purpose of this study is to better understand how unhealthy food habits are developed and maintained in an effort to fully understand how a condition, such as obesity, can affect a person. The goal would then be to develop an effective treatment. 

“We believe a holistic perspective can lead to a more comprehensive understanding — one that does not just focus on the metabolic processes but also examines the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms, such as those related to attentional control,” he said.

The research was funded by the Transforming Lives grant from the College of Education and Human Development to study adolescent obesity, which has become a widespread issue.

If left uncontrolled, Woltering said obesity can lead to health problems in the adolescents’ adult lives, such as diabetes and heart disease as well as self-esteem issues and other social problems.


About the Writer

Justin is a native of Harlingen, the capital city of the Rio Grande Valley in Deep South Texas. He graduated in 2021 from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, majoring in Mass Communication with a concentration in Print Journalism. Justin is responsible for writing news and feature stories for the College and its various departments to be featured via the web, social media, and various other media outlets.

Articles by Justin

For media inquiries, contact Ashley Green.

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