Cognitive Control

Both divided attention and selective attention come under the concept of cognitive control.  Selective attention involves controlling cognition to focus on particular information.  Such concentration is needed for complex tasks.  If you need to study a topic, it is usually much more efficient to focus on the topic rather than to multi-task.   Such concentration is achieved by shutting out other information, which can be dangerous.  Cognitive control involves more than focusing on information.  It also involves switching attention when necessary or switching from automated System 1 to conscious System 2 processes.1  Some tasks inherently involve multitasking among subtasks.  Cognitve control is involved in the efficient switching between or sometimes among tasks.

One of the capacities that decline with age is the ability to selectively attend to information.  Fortunately, the brain’s capability to alter itself remains into old age, so losses in the ability to attend selectively can be effectively countered.  Computer training programs have been developed to do this2 and it is a safe bet that many more will be coming in the future. Restak3 has argued that video games, particularly action video games, improve the ability to attend selectively and to respond more quickly.  He presents exercises in his book for enhancing attention.  He also reviews the “Brain Gyms”  that can be found on the internet that exercise attention, perception, and memory. 

Multitasking has become the way of the world with people performing multiple tasks at once.  However, switching between tasks itself requires attention, and depending on the nature of the task additional time can be lost in reorienting yourself to the task.  So if you have the choice, it is prefereable to perform tasks sequentially rather than multi-tasking.  One way of thinking about this book is that it is providing guidance on how to attend selectively and to use your attention effectively. 

You can practice selectively attending.  If there is noise when you are trying to read or watch a television program, rather than asking people to be quiet you can practice focusing your attention.   Of course, once the practice session is over, do not hesitate to tell them to keep it down.

There are also some simple and obvious techniques that aid selective attention.  Research4 has shown that closing your eyes can reduce visual distractions.  Some studies have found that people who close their eyes either during the learning or recall of information performed as my as 33% better that people who had their eyes open when there was distracting information.  Moving to a quiet environment where there are few or no distractions is another technique that should not be overlooked.

It is also the case that the amount of attention with which you can work varies throughout the day. 5 . One hears people say that they are morning people or evening people.  This is true.  So not only does one’s own available attentional capacity vary throughout the day, but these circadian, daily, rhythms vary from individual to individual.  So, when possible, it is wise to arrange your schedule that those activities with the highest attentional demands are done when your attentional capacity peaks.  When in a group you need to be sensitive to the the attentional cycles of the members and make whatever accommodations the group needs.

1See the Blog Post “The Two System View of Cognition.”

2 Brain Fitness Program and insight,

3Restak, R. (2009). Op cit p. 151-167.

4Einstein, G. O., Earles, J. L., & Collins, H. M. (2002).  Gaze Aversion:  Spared Inhibition for Visual Distraction in Older Adults.  Journal of Gerontology:  Psychological Sciences, 57B, 1-9.

5Einstein, G. O., & McDaniel, M., A. (2004).  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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