Okay, today’s topic is all about attention. It may not be the most exciting information I’ve ever shared, as a matter of fact, John edited this piece for me and his comment was, “It’s not very exciting, but it’s for school right?” Well, no, it’s for people interested in improving their brain health, maintaining their mental powers, using the brain to build health and optimizing the minds ability to … well… think! It may be a little dry, but it’s important background information. Don’t worry, there will be no quizzes! If you have any questions, feel free to ask.
Attention and the Ability to Focus
The ability to maintain attention is a skill we develop at an early age. It helps us follow instructions in the classroom, develop and maintain close friendships and learn the intricacies of social interaction. As we get older, it enables us to focus and complete tasks and successfully perform any number of daily jobs. But when we hit our middle years, a shift happens. Our ability to focus changes and we find it more difficult to maintain attention and block out distractions. This change in ability is thought to be one of the main reasons for cognitive impairment in older adults.
It makes sense that being able to focus and attend to things is important, but it has only been in recent years that science has discovered just how central it is to cognition, perception and memory. This knowledge is tied to working memory, which represents short term memory or the ability to recall information for the short term, as well as using that information for performing specific mental operations. According to Art Shimamura of the University of California, working memory is not just a passive holding of symbols and representations, it requires attention for the individual to disseminate and modify important pieces of information.
For example, tonight I was at agility class with Willie, my brilliant Border Collie puppy. We were practicing front crosses, rear crosses, post crosses, jumps, walking the plank and running the tunnel. At the end of the class we put them all together and took the dogs over a couple of jumps, through a tire and tunnel and then the shute. My working memory needed to block out the loose equipment in the arena through a process of dynamic filtering and focus on the relevant pieces we would be using. I needed to attend to the task ahead of it. I didn’t need to remember where we learned how to use the equipment or how it was made, instead I needed to focus on the sequence of equipment and the path we would be taking through it. This sounds straightforward right?
Now consider not having that ability to attend. When we read a story, instead of only focusing on understanding the meaning, our mind could consider the font of the letters, the quality of paper, where in the text we were at any given time. Without the ability to attend, our working memory would find it difficult to select task-relevant information. In agility, this means I would have had difficulty deciding which piece of equipment I would direct Willie to go through.
There are two components to attention; one is voluntary and directed attention, the other involuntary and captured attention. Captured attention is the type where you hear a sudden loud noise and turn to see where it came from. Directed attention is the type you control, as in reading a book, running an agility run or performing a task at work. It’s also the type of attention that is most problematic as we age.
Directed attention has two parts to it: one is direct control and the other is the inhibitory control you apply when blocking out distractions. The latter is where we may experience major cognitive impairment. I’m almost finished; after just a few more bits of information, you’ll have a good understanding of the importance of attention. Here we go!
Three aspects of directed attention are important for us to understand: alerting, orienting and executive control. Alerting allows us to be sensitive to incoming stimulus. It’s a general aspect of attention, related to arousal. Orienting is selective and helps us determine location in space and time. Executive control is all about being able to ignore distractions. Put them all together and you have a system that allows us to access and categorize new information and experiences. When they work in synchrony, your ability to attend is unimpaired.
So why do I mention attention? It is vital to optimal brain health. If we can’t focus, we can’t learn, if we can’t learn, we can’t grow our brains, if we can’t use it, we lose it! Over the next few days, I’ll be writing on things you can do to improve your ability to focus and attend. You have the background information, now you need to know the next steps. Come back tomorrow for the next instalment!