The Mind and Attention

By Maggie Jackson published at

IN THE FAST-PACED, distraction-plagued arena of modern life, perhaps
nothing has come under more assault than the simple faculty of
attention. We bemoan the tug of war for our focus, joke uneasily about
our attention-deficit lifestyles, and worry about the seeming epidemic
of attention disorders among children.

The ability to pay careful attention isn’t important just for students and
air traffic controllers. Researchers are finding that attention is
crucial to a host of other, sometimes surprising, life skills: the
ability to sort through conflicting evidence, to connect more deeply
with other people, and even to develop a conscience.

But for all that, attention remains one of the most poorly understood human
faculties. Neither a subject nor a skill, precisely, attention is often
seen as a fixed, even inborn faculty that cannot be taught. Children
with attention problems are medicated; harried adults struggle to “pay
attention.” In a sense, our reigning view of attention hasn’t come far
from that of William James, the father of American psychological
research, who dolefully asserted a century ago that attention could not
be highly trained by “any amount of drill or discipline.”

But now scientists are rapidly rewriting that notion. After decades of
research powered by fresh advances in neuroimaging and genetics, many
scientists are drawing a much clearer picture of attention, which they
have come to see as an organ system like circulation or digestion, with
its own anatomy, circuitry, and chemistry. Building upon this new
understanding, researchers are discovering that skills of focus can be
bolstered with practice in both children and adults, including those
with attention-deficit disorders. In just five days of computer-based
training, the brains of 6-year-olds begin to act like adults on a
crucial measure of attention, one study found. Another found that
boosting short-term memory seems to improve children’s ability to stay
on task.

It is not yet known how long these gains last, or what the best methods
for developing attention may turn out to be. But the demand is clear:
Dozens of schools nationwide are already incorporating some kind of
attention training into their curriculum. And as this new arena of
research helps overturn long-standing assumptions about the
malleability of this essential human faculty, it offers intriguing
possibilities for a world of overload.

“If you have good attentional control, you can do more than just pay
attention to someone speaking at a lecture, you can control your
cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your
actions,” says Amir Raz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill
University who is a leading attention researcher. “You can enjoy and
gain an edge in life.”

Attention has long fascinated humankind as a window into the mind and the world
in general, yet its workings have historically been murky.
Eighteenth-century scientists, who considered unwavering visual
observation crucial to scientific discovery, theorized that attention
was a “pooling” of nervous fluid. Later, Victorian scientists eagerly
probed the limits and vulnerability of attention, treating the subject
of their inquiry with a mix of puzzlement and admiration. “Whatever its
nature, [attention] is plainly the essential condition of the formation
and development of mind,” wrote Henry Maudsley in the early 1830s.

More recently, scientists have used advances in genetics and imaging
technologies that can map brain activity to formulate more detailed
theories of what, exactly, attention is. It has been compared to a
filter, a mental spotlight, and a tool for allocating our cognitive
resources. Increasingly however, attention is viewed as a complex
system comprising three networks, or types of attention: focus,
awareness, and “executive” attention, which governs planning and
higher-order decision-making. According to this model, first proposed
by University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael I. Posner, the three
attentional networks are independent, yet work closely together.

Armed with an improved sense of how attention works, Posner and others have
begun researching whether attention can be trained. And their findings
have been intriguing.

After years of research into how attention networks develop, Posner and
colleague Mary K. Rothbart began experimenting a few years ago with
training children’s attention. They targeted children 6 and under,
since executive attention develops rapidly between ages 4 and 7.
Inspired by computer-learning work with monkeys, Posner and Rothbart
created a five-day computer-based program to strengthen executive
attention skills such as working memory, self-control, planning, and
observation. Building on a known link between this attention network
and internal conflict resolution, one exercise challenges a child to
pick the larger of two groups of objects, such as apples or numerals.
In the latter case, the symbolic and the literal counts conflict,
forcing concentrated thought.

After the training, Posner and Rothbart reported that 6-year-olds showed a
pattern of activity in the anterior cingulate – a banana-shaped brain
region that is ground zero for executive attention – similar to that of
adults, along with slightly higher scores on IQ tests and a marked gain
in executive attention. The children who were the most inattentive
gained the most from the program. The results were published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and have since been
replicated in similar experiments by Spanish researchers.

“We thought this was a long shot,” says Posner, a lanky septuagenarian with
a deep, rumbling voice. “Now I’ve changed my mind.” Though small-scale,
the results from his lab and others have been so remarkable that he and
Rothbart are now calling on educators at conferences and in their book,
“Educating the Human Brain,” to consider teaching attention in

“We should think of this work not just as remediation, but as a normal part
of education,” Posner said in an address to the American Psychological
Association in 2003, when he presented preliminary findings.

A parallel line of investigation is based on the close link between
attention and memory. “Working memory” is the short-term cognitive
storehouse that helps us recall a phone number or the image of a
landscape; this type of memory is integral to executive attention.
Tapping into this link, cognitive neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg of
Sweden’s Karolinska Institute devised computer software to improve
executive attention by training working memory in teens and
pre-adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Using a training program he calls “RoboMemo,” Klingberg has helped children
improve their working memory and complex reasoning skills, according to
studies published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatry, among other publications. This appears to pay
off in attention as well: The children were also reported to be less
impulsive and inattentive by their parents, although their teachers
largely did not report those behavioral improvements.

Christopher Lucas of New York University, one of the US researchers using
Klingberg’s software, used the RoboMemo training program to boost the
visuospatial memory of a group of children, and found that as this type
of working memory improved, they became more focused and compliant.
Lucas, a psychiatrist, cautioned that such memory training isn’t a
quick fix for attention-deficit disorders. Working memory “is one of
the areas that’s implicated in ADHD,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the
whole story.”

Other attention research eschews that kind of technology, instead
investigating the attention-boosting potential of something very
different: the 2,500-year-old tradition of meditative practice. With a
long history but little scientific data on its effects, meditation has
begun to intrigue neuroscientists in labs around the country, who are
measuring the success of meditative practices that boost skills of
focus and awareness.

Lidia Zylowska, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at UCLA,
cofounded the university’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and is a
pioneer in the study of meditation’s impact on human focus and

In one study, Zylowska and colleagues reported that eight weeks of
mindfulness meditation – a technique designed to improve attention and
well-being largely by focusing on breathing – boosted both powers of
focus and self-control in 24 adults and eight teens with ADHD. The work
was published in May in the Journal of Attention Disorders. Others are
finding similar gains from meditation in those without ADHD.
Preliminary results from the largest attention-training study to date,
which tracked 64 people meditating full-time for three months, reveal
improved sustained attention and visual discrimination, says the lead
researcher, UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron, who presented the
results at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting in April.

If focus skills can be groomed, as research has begun to hint, the
important next question is whether, and how, attention should be
integrated into education. Will attention become a 21st-century
“discipline,” a skill taught by parents, educators, even employers?
Already a growing number of educators are showing interest in attention
training, mostly through the practice of meditation in the classroom.

Susan Kaiser Greenland, a former corporate lawyer who started the nonprofit
InnerKids Foundation in 2001 to teach meditation practices in
communities and schools, says demand outstrips her staffing. The Santa
Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit works with children ages 4 to 12.

“The kids are stressed out, they are distracted, and they are not able to
sit still,” she says. “There are more schools interested in our work
than we can possibly serve.”

But with the field of attention training still in its infancy, scientists
don’t yet understand if any current teaching has long-lasting gains –
or, for that matter, which practices work best. Some researchers, for
example, question computer-based efforts as too narrow in scope,
arguing that children must be taught attention holistically, as a life
skill. No brief training regime is likely to be a magic bullet, they

“Part of the problem in today’s society is that people are looking for
extremely quick fixes that have no vision. People are looking to lose
20 pounds for the wedding next week,” says Raz at McGill. “But
attention training is a slow process.”

Nonetheless, with global use of controversial ADHD medicines tripling since the
early 1990s and evidence mounting that attention can be strengthened,
researchers are permitting themselves a bit of cautious excitement at
the prospect that attention training could work, especially for

“Attention is such a basic skill that children need, and to be able to impact that
skill, to teach them how to redirect their attention and how to become
more aware of themselves, their bodies, emotions, and thoughts – it’s
an exciting thing,” says Zylowska. “It’s also critical.”


~ by Dr.Zhivago on July 18, 2008.

One Response to “The Mind and Attention”

  1. I loved reading this, thanks. I work in e-learning and found this really useful for the project I am working on. Cheers and keep up the good writing : )

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