How Does Attention Work?

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Attention is not just about the things we focus on—it also concerns all the things we manage to tune out. We know that attention is both selective and limited in terms of capacity, but how exactly do we filter out unnecessary information and shine the spotlight of our attention on things that actually matter?

Many theories of attention tend to concentrate on how we focus our attention but fail to address exactly how we manage to ignore all the stimuli around us competing for attentional resources. A few recent studies have focused on the neuroscience behind this process, shedding some light on the possible processes that influence how we tune out distractions.

Attention at the Neural Level

One 2013 study by researchers at Newcastle University suggested that the way neurons respond to outside stimuli impacts perceptual abilities.

Lead author Alex Thiele explained:

"When you communicate with others, you can make yourself better heard by speaking louder or by speaking more clearly. Neurons appear to do similar things when we're paying attention. They send their message more intensely to their partners, which compares to speaking louder. But more importantly, they also increase the fidelity of their message, which compares to speaking more clearly."

Syncing Brain Regions

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that the brain appears to be capable of synchronizing activity in different regions of the brain, allowing a person to concentrate on a task. The researchers liken the process to using a walkie-talkie—areas of the brain essentially "tune to the same frequency" in order to create a clear line of communication.

"We think the brain not only puts regions that facilitate attention on alert but also makes sure those regions have open lines for calling each other," explained researcher Amy Daitch.

The study involved directly scanning certain brain regions in epilepsy patients as they watched visual targets. The participants were asked to detect targets on a screen without moving their eyes and to then press a button to indicate that they had seen the target.

What the researchers found was that as the participants directed their attention to a target, certain regions of the brain important for attention adjusted their excitability cycles so that the cycles matched up. Areas not associated with attention showed no such changes in excitability.

The authors suggested that when areas of the brain involved in stimulus detection are at a high level of excitability, people are much more likely to notice a stimulus. Conversely, when excitability levels are low in these regions, the likelihood of a signal being detected is much lower.

The Brain's Anti-Distraction System

Another recent study suggests that the brain actually actively suppresses certain signals in order to prevent avoid distraction. The researchers believe that our ability to focus on an object in only part of the attentional equation.

"Our results show clearly that this is only one part of the equation and that active suppression of irrelevant objects is another important part," explained lead author John Gaspar.

The authors also suggest that the discovery of this anti-distraction system could have important implications for psychological disorders related to attention, including ADHD.

Rather than attempting to focus harder, those experiencing attentional issues might benefit from suppressing distractions instead.

Why These Processes Matter?

Why is it so important to understand the processes behind attention? Because we live in a world of distraction. At any given moment, thousands of things might be competing for our attention and our ability to filter out the esoteric and focus on what really matters is important—so important it might sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

When you are driving a car through busy traffic, your ability to focus on the road and other drivers while ignoring distractions (the radio, your mobile phone, the chatter of a passenger in your car) can mean the difference between arriving to your destination safely or getting into a traffic accident.

As research John McDonald explains, "Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments. There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it."

New research on how the brain handles distractions and focuses attention offers insights into how this process works and gives researchers and doctors new ways of dealing with attentional problems.

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."