Published on behalf of Dr. Agatha Lenartowicz and Dr. Don Vaughn
The What An untamable beast, a sleeping beauty, a rolling ocean, a flying arrow. Attention is all those, at different times, for different people, and it ultimately determines the contents of our waking moments. Within neuroscience circles, it is also a set of systems(1) that interact to determine which information is processed and which information is blocked, in alignment with a goal. So if, while driving down the freeway, our goal is to figure out the correct offramp, we tune out the radio. If our goal is to figure out a faint hum in the car, we tune out visual distractions. Neuroscience research has firmly established that such “tuning” is how our brain implements attention. If we peeked inside our brains and looked at the specialized regions that process auditory and visual sensory signals, we would see stronger signals in the modality to which we are attending than in the modality we are ignoring.(1)
How does the brain know which signals to enhance? The answer to this lies in goals — and more specifically, in our brain’s ability to represent and maintain goals. Imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk after ordering a car to pick you up. Even though you just put away your phone, you still know that your goal is to look for a car — your goal persists through time. It may seem simple, but this fancy feat requires a highly specialized brain network that is adept at quickly gluing together a set of actions and features into a goal (“wait,” “car,” “blue,” “Honda,” “from north,” etc.), and it does so flexibly and transiently, adapting to new goals as needed. This network includes regions such as the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the deeply seated thalamus(2), which together create an activity pattern that represents your goal. Specific goals manifest as neural activity in these regions, and this response remains elevated until the action is complete(3). These regions communicate with sensory cortices, controlling which modality is attended and which is ignored. And when these regions falter, they contribute to those moments when we stare blankly, trying to remember what it was we were just about to do.
At its core, attention is a system that flexibly encodes our desires and tunes our processing channels in accordance with this goal. Though usually a tool of our will, attention can be hijacked by our reward system, which may indicate a tempting alternative to our current goal, or our alertness system, which may sense danger or decide it is time to rest.
The Why Attention has become a social focal point over the last 15–20 years, perhaps spurred by technological development — and the ensuing sense of discomfort, suspicion, and helplessness in the addictive, all-encompassing, and non-stop flow of information. Neuroscientists have contributed to this conversation by pointing out that the attention system is not designed for active multitasking(4). Quite the contrary: it is a resource-limited system that may be exhausted by non-stop device use and lack of rest, and when its capacity is overwhelmed, we experience frenzy and stress(5). In 2006, UCLA psychologists published a high-profile brain imaging study(6,7) in which students engaged in a learning activity while either focusing on the task at hand or being subjected to distractions from a second task. The psychologists demonstrated that when distracted, the brain relied on a system associated with habit learning rather than on the hippocampus, the memory-encoding center of the brain. This switch to habit learning was associated with weaker information recall following the test, implying that distractions during studying impair the quality of learning.
Such multitasking situations occur frequently. In 2013, California State University researchers observed the studying habits of 263 students(8) and found that students averaged 6 minutes of study time before switching attention to distractions such as email, internet, and social sites. By the end of the 15-minute study window, they had been on-task only 65% of the time. The recent trend in open office layouts, and the additional sensory stimulation they entail, is potentially exacerbating this issue; one study found they lead to a 37% decrease in performance (Brennan et al. 2002). Clearly, we live in an era of attention scarcity. It is now a social necessity to nurture and protect this endangered resource.
The How It is unrealistic to suppose that we can universally slow the flow of information or the pace of life. It is also unrealistic to hope that our attention system can keep up, or catch up. While brain training software advertisements evoke hope for the latter, research studies overwhelmingly have failed to provide substantial evidence that such training offer gains beyond score improvements within the training environment — lacking the so-called “far transfer” to real-life activities(9). In other words, for the most part, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.
However, we do have control over our behavior, our environment, and the environment we create for others. The extent to which we do defines our “attention quotient”, if not attention itself. We can maximize our attention quotient by understanding how to make small changes in this direction. As noted above, we know that attention is resource-limited and not amenable to multitasking. Following these two simple facts, we can adapt any activity to optimize attention. Be it a work session or a meeting, eliminating distractions (tech or otherwise) and taking breaks are valuable habits. And while this may seem simpler in theory than in practice, there are ample software solutions to assist with both — from tracking screen time to having a virtual assistant take meeting notes.
In addition, it’s important to recognize that attention varies vastly between individuals. Before you can optimize your attention, you must build awareness of how it works. Perhaps you are most focused and distraction-free in the mornings, on Mondays and Wednesdays, and in 60-minute bursts, but never between 2 and 3 PM. Understanding when and how your attention works is perhaps the most profitable strategy for maximizing attention.
The broad impact of this idea is clearly evident in adaptations to age-related changes in attention, as just one example. An extensive body of psychology and neuroscience research spanning more than 50 years(10–12) supports the conclusion that aging is associated with an increase in distractibility, implying weaker attention control. In a high-profile review, however, University of Toronto researchers argued that this change may be beneficial in some contexts(13). Across studies, older adults performed worse than younger adults in situations that demanded the suppression of distractions — such as in reading, retrieving memories, and visually searching a busy picture. However, older adults performed better when the situation called for integration of diverse, and perhaps previously irrelevant, sources of information — such as in unstructured problem solving, decision making that relied on holistic learning of recently-presented information, and the learning of statistical patterns in streams of information (analogous to how young children acquire new languages). In other words, when assessing the cognitive benefits of focus versus breadth, context matters.
Bottom Line Attention is a superpower that allows us to filter information efficiently, streamlining our sprint toward a goal. In the information era, this superpower is tested daily, pushed to its limits by non-stop demands. In today’s world, the fate of the attention quotient will be determined by both our efforts to nurture it and our ability to adapt our behaviors and environment. By protecting the attention quotient, we can pave a path to not only a productive, but also more harmonious existence in a busy world.
Dr. Agatha Lenartowicz is an assistant professor at UCLA and has published extensively on attention.
Dr. Don Vaughn is a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA and researches attention in professional athletes.
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Dr. Don Vaughn is an academic neuroscientist, futurist, international public speaker, and consultant. His foci include neuroscience, human behavior, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Since graduating from Stanford, Dr. Vaughn’s research has been featured in TIME magazine, profiled by Cadillac, and received over a million views in his TEDx talk “neurohacking: rewiring your brain”. He has been an opinion leader for a wide range of news outlets from The Wall Street Journal to NBC News. Dr. Vaughn is adjunct faculty at Santa Clara University where he teaches neuroscience and a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA where he leads a workshop on modern statistics. Don promotes engaging and accessible science.