All of us, at one point, or many, in our lives, have been told to “pay attention.” Distractions easily divert our focus, taking our concentration to conversations across the room, or to a passing train out the window, or to a spot on a speaker’s collar.

At the opposite extreme, there’s the college student who listens to an iPOD with a television running in the background, friends talking loudly, e-mail scrolling on a laptop. Yet the student is able to hyper-focus, or “channel” her attention on a history textbook to study for a test.

These common anecdotes appear seemingly commonplace in today’s world, especially with the number of digital distractions now available. But those in the fields of neuropsychology and neurosciences Neuroscience find it fascinating to study how individual brains focus or pay attention to specific things, such as objects – or, on the other hand, fail to pay attention.

At the most basic level, attention refers to the ability to select, focus, and concentrate on certain things as well as the ability to ignore, filter out, and inhibit other things. Scientists generally break down this definition into four categories.

Four Categories of Attention

  • Vigilance. This means maintaining attention over a considerable period of time, such as during an academic lecture. It takes a conscious effort to sustain this type of attention from minutes to hours.
  • Arousal and alertness. These terms refer to physiologic states of attention. For example, when sleeping, individuals remain generally unresponsive to things going on around them, except of course extremely loud disturbances, such as storms. Researchers have shown that at certain times of the day, individuals are more “alert” than at other times. For most people, alertness peaks in the early evening.
  • Divided attention. To what extent can individuals multitask? Or in other words, can people attend equally well to two tasks at once? The ability of individuals to divide their attention depends on individual information processing capacities as determined by the brain’s biology.
  • Selective (focused) attention. This is the ability to focus exclusively on one channel or object of thought, regardless of the amount of surrounding stimuli available to distract and re-focus attention. Researchers study both auditory selective attention and visual selective attention.

Most neuropsychologists and neuroscientists, including cognitive neuropsychologists and neuroscientists, focus their research on the psychological, biological, and physiological mechanisms of selective attention.

Researching selective attention

Researchers focus on four main categories or questions of selective attention:

  • Where in the sequence of stages involving information processing does attention begin to exercise its influence?
  • Does attention select regions of space (spatial processing) or objects to focus on?
  • How does attention move in space?
  • Does selective attention result from enhancing relevant information or inhibiting irrelevant or unimportant information?

Nutrition and Concentration

The proper nutrition provides the brain with important nutrients needed for healthy brain biochemistry, brain development, and mood stability. If children eat foods lacking nutritional value, such as meals from fast-food restaurants, convenience foods, and an assortment of junk foods filled with preservatives and hydrogenated oils, their brains suffer. (see also Childhood Developmental Psychology).

Because of the brain’s sensitivity to improper nutrition, the warning signs for lackluster nutrient intake are poor concentration, mood, and behavior.

The principle fuel for brain activity is glucose (blood sugar) but when children ingest high amounts of processed sugars and refined carbohydrates, their glucose levels fluctuate wildly. Children who are in the process of growing will experience severe ups and downs in conjunction with these fluctuating glucose levels, leading to irritability, lethargy, hyperactivity – and the inability to pay attention and concentrate.

The solution? Children need to eat foods high in protein, and fresh, high-fiber vegetables because vegetables help stabilize blood sugar levels. Eggs and high-quality meats also provide higher energy levels – and increase mental focus.

In many research studies, investigations into substructures of selective attention focus on studying those with brain dysfunctions that impair attention skills. The results from the studies of individuals with little to no attention provides researchers with data needed to extrapolate the ways in which normal attention mechanisms operate.

Individuals with damage to one side of the brain, resulting from conditions such as stroke, for example, often have what is called “neglect syndrome.” Neglect in this sense means an individual ignoring objects or people on one side of the person’s visual space.

For example, an individual with neurological damage to the brain’s right hemisphere will often ignore anything taking place on the left side of his or her body. These individuals will draw only the right side of objects, eat food that is only on a plate’s right side, and only dress the right side of the body.

Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have studied why this type of neglect results from neurological damage. Two main hypotheses have emerged from numerous research studies:

Theory (1) Neglect is a disorder of attention, resulting in an individual’s inability to disengage his or her attention from one side of space. Researchers most often see this on the left side of space after damage to the brain’s right hemisphere, where the person does not have the ability to stop focusing on the right side of the body.

Theory (2) Another theory views neglect syndrome as a disruption in the internal representation of space. In this theory, researchers hypothesize that neglect results from disruptions that occur in how the individual represents space internally. It’s not necessarily a dysfunction in attention, but a problem in how stimuli are perceived and represented internally.

In both of the theories above, researchers focus on attention’s spatial processing. Research continues today trying to prove either theory, but other research continues to hypothesize and discuss other possibilities for neglect. And while this research focuses on individual patients who have suffered this particular type of neurological damage, other individuals with different brain development disorders and deficits are also studied.

However, as exemplified by the theories regarding “neglect syndrome,” one unified theory on how the brain handles tasks of attention still eludes researchers. They continue to investigate this topic, making it one of the most exciting and changing areas of neuroscientific thought and research.

Here are some the key findings and areas of agreement by those studying attention:

  • The process of attention selects both spatial areas and objects for enhanced processing, and it is thought likely that whether it’s space or objects that individuals choose to focus on depends on specific neural mechanisms. Researchers also investigate “neglect” symptoms for each: the inability to focus or pay attention to objects, or parts of objects; and how spatial attention can be impaired in one sector of space.
  • Researchers have found eye movement for many forms of attention – called overt attention. But individuals are also able attend to something without moving their eyes – called covert attention. However, in both overt and covert attention, researchers believe that the same areas in the brain are activated or used – in other words, there’s neuroanatomical overlap.
  • Researchers agree that focused attention involves both concentration on relevant information, and the ability to inhibit irrelevant information. Scientists continue to investigate whether the ability to focus on the relevant while disregarding the irrelevant occurs in one area or region of the brain, or whether two separate areas are involved in this complex task.

A career studying attention

Neuropsychologists and neuroscientists usually focus their research within a specific topic area, such as attention. Usually a Ph.D. is required for this type of work. Some positions are available for those with master’s degrees. These positions involve assisting another scientist in running his or her laboratory.

Receiving a degree in psychology is excellent preparation for a career as a researcher interested in studying how the brain processes complex operations such as attention. Check out schools offering degrees in psychology for more information.

Digital Attention Distracters

Mothers often joke that managing a household, kids, a job, and extended family relationships make them expert multitaskers, but brain scientists are now studying this phenomena, specifically in regards to how “multitasking” affects attention and distraction.

Multitasking helps mothers, but what researchers are more concerned about is the effect of digital multitasking on the brain. Scientists differ, however, in their opinion on the direct link between computer use and the extent of harm on the brain.

Some neuroscientists and neuropsychologists believe that cellphones, e-mail, online chat, laptops, and video games, all turned on and operating simultaneously, seriously alter the brain’s “attention mechanisms.”

These scientists claim that an individual’s ability to focus is undermined by the digital characteristics of “information bursts,” according to a the New York Times article, “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price,” by Matt Richtel.

The article also stated that the effects on the brain aren’t only apparent while individuals use these devices. Fractured thinking and lack of focus is apparent long after the devices have been turned off as well.

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, told the NYT. As a renowned brain scientist, she compared the need for digital stimulation to the need for food and sex – two essential aspects of life, but harmful if done in excess.

Yet other researchers point to research showing that computer use has neurological advantages.

Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the article that neuroimaging studies have shown increased activity in the brain of computer users over nonusers, perhaps pointing to an increase in the growth of neural circuits.

And, University of Rochester researchers studied video game players, showing that the games increased reaction times in picking out objects within large amounts of clutter – or increasing their ability to attend to objects within a field of distractions.

To play an online game testing your ability to filter out distractions, developed by Stanford researcher Eyal Ophir, and featured in the NYT special series on “Your Brain On Computers”.

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