Mind Control, Concentration, and Color – Understanding the Stroop Effect

By October 10th, 2013 at 11:09 am | Comments (2)

brain lightbulbIn a technologically savvy, hyper-caffeinated, on-the-go society, it can be nearly impossible to ignore distracting information. With flashing lights to deafening sounds, even our smartphones demand attention. How does the mind sort through these conflicting signals, allowing us to concentrate and process only the most important visual cues?

Ignore That! was developed by Dr. Joshua Hartshorne, a post-doctoral fellow in the Computation Cognitive Science group at MIT. Part of the Games with Words project, citizen scientists explore how the brain chooses an appropriate response when faced with conflicting information through a series of simple, 3-minute tasks. After providing your age, gender and handedness, participants identify the color of a word (white or orange), rather than the word itself, then the location (left or right), not direction, of a series of arrows.  According to Dr Hartshorne, “Sometimes, it’s really hard to ignore information even when that information is irrelevant. We’re trying to understand what factors go into this… At what age are people best at ignoring irrelevant, distracting information? What about men vs. women? Or left-handers vs. right-handers?”

Stroop effect

Can you say the color not the word?

Known as the Stroop effect, these selective attention tasks help psychologists understand how the brain evaluates information. In the 1930s, John Ridley Stroop observed that reading words was a lot easier than reciting their color. When a word’s meaning is coupled with distracting information, such as a color, two different regions of the brain are stimulated. The right side automatically decodes letters and reads the word. The left consciously analyzes the color. When you are asked to read the color (active) rather than the word (passive), the brain becomes conflicted – the interfering data of the word slows down your response time; relying on the anterior cingulate to choose the correct visual cue to base your answer on. As one of the most famous experimental psychology experiments of all time, similar tests are used clinically to assess brain damage, dementia, mental illness, and famously the effects of altitude on Everest climbers.

Since its launch in November 2012, nearly 1100 citizen scientists have played Ignore That! exploring how our minds work. “I keep doing Stroop demos on myself because I feel like if I concentrate harder, I should be able to block out the effect.” Dr. Hartshorne reflects. “But it’s impossible. That amount of concentration doesn’t exist. Which itself is a bit of mystery: Is this an example of a failure of evolution or is it actually good that we are distractible in this way?”

Shiny, shiny, look at the shiny… How distractible are you? Can you control your mind to read the colors while blocking out the words?

Want another word game challenge? Try out another one from Games With Words: Verb Corner!

Photos: Public Domain


Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

  • natterbutterz

    Is there any way I can contact Dr. Melinda?

  • CingulateErrorChecking

    You folks have got the Left and Right hemisphere’s functions backwards: The Left Hemisphere is the part that decodes language and symbols (in 80-90% of individuals), the Right Hemisphere is the part that is decodes spatial and visual cue “more”;i.e. colors and shapes. Please correct it when you get a chance or explain why the researchers insist it’s the Right Hemisphere that decodes the word, because that statement goes contrary to our biology textbooks.

    Otherwise it’s a good article.