Posts Tagged ‘Selective Attention’

Cognitive Processes

September 13, 2017

This is the fourth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The authors note that “‘Attention’ is likely the most widely used term in cognitive science.” Attention is also used widely by the general public and practitioners from diverse fields of education, philosophy, mental health, marketing, design, politics, and human factors.

To understand what attention means in cognitive science, its most fundamental feature is selectivity. Selectivity is required because attention is limited. Indeed, it is one of our must fundamental constraints. So we need to be selective to use this limited supply where it is most needed. It can be thought of as the spotlight in our cognitive control toolkit. Selective attention also involves suppression of perceptions that are outside of the spotlight. This is also known as the act of ignoring. What is not so well known is that this suppression requires attention which further depletes the limited supply. The amount of suppression required depends on extraneous stimuli in the immediate environment. And it also entails the suppression of thoughts extraneous to what is in the spotlight. Expectation also play a role here as we used our expectations to direct our attention. Expectation is what allows us to transition from the internal world of our goals to our perceptions and actions. Expectation is a critical factor in optimizing our performance by enabling knowledge of past events to shape our future. To a large extent our brains live in the future, using predictive information to bias both incoming stimuli and outgoing responses.

Directionality is another important feature of selective attention, We can direct our limited cognitive resources to stimuli in the environment, but we can also aim it internally at our thoughts and emotions. As in the case for external selective attention, our ability to control internal attention allows us to attend to relevant or ignore irrelevant information in our minds based on our goals. We can direct our attention toward searching memories and/or focusing on feedback from the body, such as a hungry stomach. It is often important to selectively ignore internal information such as suppressing sadness at a time when you need to remain upbeat, or suppressing a recurrent that is interfering with your current activities.

Another critical factor when using selective attention is our ability to sustain it. This is especially true in situations that are not engaging, or boring. Moreover, over time activities that once were engaging can become boring. Vigilance is the area of research concerned with looking for a signal over a long period of time.

Working memory refers to the amount of information we can hold in our active memory at the same time. This amount of information is limited. The exact amount is dependent on the items. George Miller’s original estimate was seven items plus or minus two. Over time this magic number has decreased. It might even be as small as one, depending on the nature of the information. We must keep thinking about or rehearsing this information to maintain it in working memory. And this is another strong constraint in our cognitive abilities.
Goal management is required when we have more than one goal. So when we engage in more than one goal-directed activity at a time, we are switching back and forth between multiple goals, we are multi-tasking. It is more accurate to call multi-tasking task switching as we can only perform one task at a time. We accomplish multi-tasking by rapidly switching between or among tasks, and this switching requires attention. There is also a requirement to review where we are in the goal to which we have switched back.

All tasks require cognitive control. Even if two tasks are not competing for the same sensory resources, mental task switching is required, with perhaps the requirement to determine where we were when we left that task.

Advertisements

A Key Component Generating Conscious Experience?

October 29, 2014

The November/December 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article by Christof Koch, who is a former collaborator with Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure and the function of DNA. The title of the article is “A Brain Structure Looking for a Function.” The brain structure in question is the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, which is the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think, and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter, the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. There are two claustra one for each side of the brain. They lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They have a long, thin wisp of a shape that can be easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of the brain region.

Advanced brain-imaging techniques have revealed white matter fibers coursing to and from the two claustra that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustra. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustra to the originating cortical regions. Although each claustrum receives inputs from both cortical hemispheres, but only project back to the overlying cortex on the same side.

Crick looked at these facts and believed that a reliable guide to understanding function, is to study structure. And he, working with Koch formulated the idea that the claustra are a key component of the networks generating conscious experience. This work turned out to be Crick’s Swan Song to science as he was suffering from end-stage colon cancer. He finished his paper with Koch before passing away,

“What is the Function of the Claustrum?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360, No.1458, pages 1271-1279.

Additional research supporting this contention of Crick and Koch is cited in the Koch piece in Scientific American Mind. Nevertheless it is always fascinating to speculate about conscious. It is the only product of the brain with which we have direct experience. Yet the brain is raging with activity 24 hours a day. There are many reasons to believe that we can use our conscious experience to improve our focus and ability to attend. We can also use it to control our emotions and it lets us take a third person look at our own interactions with other. Fundamentally, meditation and mindfulness is a matter of learning to control our conscious experience to advantage.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Improving Selective Attention

May 16, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

      1. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.