The dastardly, distracting power of — donuts?


Distinguished Science of Learning Fellow Corbin Cunningham has spent the last two years determining what it takes to pull someone’s attention from an engaging task.

Imagine that you're deeply engrossed in your work. A co-worker announces that there are donuts in the conference room. Do you ignore sugar's siren call, or does it distract you?

Corbin Cunningham, a doctoral candidate in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, can predict your answer. He's spent the past two years as a Distinguished Science of Learning Fellow determining what it takes to pull someone's attention from an engaging task, such as a video game. His early findings indicate that calorie-dense foods — donuts, steaks, ice cream, etc.— can distract us.    

"I'm an attention researcher, not a food researcher," Cunningham says, "but what if someone is really engaged in a task? What role does food play in distracting someone, and does the type of food make a difference?"

Those kinds of questions about dietary behavior, at the nexus of brain research and public health, are exactly the kind of interdisciplinary connections the Science of Learning Institute, funded five years ago by an anonymous gift, has sought to foster. In addition to funding support, the institute's Distinguished Science of Learning Fellowships match doctoral candidates with advisors from two different disciplines to help advance their research. Cunningham's advisors are Howard Egeth, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, and Larry Cheskin, an associate professor of health, behavior, and society in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Learn how Cunningham teamed up with a School of Education alumnus to give Baltimore City high school students a sneak peek at college-level science

Cunningham and his research team weren't surprised that their research showed people could be distracted during a demanding task. But they were surprised at the different effects non-food, healthy food, and unhealthy food items had; calorie-dense foods proved twice as distracting as images of healthy food.

"We're now asking if these results are the same for everyone, and we're recording what happens in the brain when we show images of a tasty donut, for example. Does the brain respond differently to different foods?" Cunningham asks, noting the new studies his initial research has seeded.

His initial findings, published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review in October 2017, have implications well beyond the academic world, particularly for dieting and weight management. 

"We've gotten more press notices in the past year with Corbin's work than I have in my entire career," Egeth says. "The study appeals to the public because of its interesting breadth."

Such an achievement is a goal of the Distinguished Science of Learning Fellowship's training. Through a series of workshops called Science for Public Consumption, fellows learn how to write and present science to non-academic audiences.

"Typically, with neuroscience fellowships, you submit a project proposal and compete for funding, and that’s where it ends," says Cunningham, who will join a medical brain team at Google when he concludes his Hopkins studies this summer. "The Distinguished Science of Learning Fellowship is unique in that it provides those tools to do the untalked-about things in academia, like learning how to 'translate' your research to make it more accessible to the general public."