How Does Our Attention System Work?

Strobe thinking: the ins and outs of attention 

Attention is an all-encompassing brain process. It hums along constantly in the background of your brain influencing just about everything you are up to.

This broad functioning means our attention can be directed externally to the world around us (what’s that over there?), or internally without our inner thoughts (searching through our memories). It can be directly explicitly or consciously depending on what our goals are (where did I leave my keys?), or it can be manipulated implicitly without our awareness (e.g. by priming). It also interacts with our memory, our emotions and our decision making (to name a few) to significantly influence our actions and behaviour.

Or to put it another way, without attention our brain would be in chaos. Disorganised. Unfocused. Confused. All are resulting in a highly unproductive state where we cannot function effectively in work or life.

It is therefore not surprising that hardly a week goes by when there isn’t some new piece of knowledge, some scientific finding, which furthers our understanding of how our attention system work.

Attention – a strobe not a spotlight

Traditionally speaking, people used the analogy of a “spotlight” to describe the way our attention system works. In other words, when we focus our attention on something, it means that our brain is spending its resources (i.e. its energy) on dealing with what we are looking at – although it’s important to remember that attention doesn’t just happen according to our visual sense – the same applies to our other four senses as well.

In this way, our brain can filter out what is considered less relevant or unimportant and stop itself becoming overloaded with unnecessary information which goes beyond its capacity limits. This is something that is becoming increasingly important in a modern world where we are constantly being bombarded with sensory information from a multitude of sources each vying for our precious brain power.

But more recently scientists have likened our attention to be more like a strobe, rather than a spotlight. In other words, a spotlight that waxes and wanes with intensity, rather than being steady.

The ins and outs of attention

The implications of this are that when we are focusing our attention on something, our brain isn’t engaging our attention on it 100% of the time. Instead, it is doing it in an oscillating manner where there are “ins” – where our attention is selectively focused – and “outs” – where our attention is focused more generally on everything else. The researchers have even measured the timing or frequency of this oscillating attention and suggest that it shifts about four times a second – in other words, the ins and outs change every 250ms or so.

What’s interesting about this data, and remarked on by the researchers themselves, is that despite this strobe-like attention, it isn’t manifested in our perception – we don’t perceive these attentional ins and outs as we stare at something in front of us.

So how does it happen?

Well, we already know that the brain has some tricks up its sleeve to deal with these situations. For example, when we blink, or when we move our eyes rapidly, the world doesn’t get blurry or change momentarily. This is because the brain has an amazing ability to “fill in” and make up for the perceptual gaps that it creates through in-built processes such as this attentional strobe. More generally, it reminds us that “our subjective experience of the visual world is an illusion” as stated by Sabine Kastner from Princeton, who was also one of the lead authors on this study.

The second question that it worth asking about this research is why. Why does attention work like this?

Well, the core benefit of attention is that you can focus and concentrate your mind on what’s important. However, the disadvantage to this is that, if your attention worked like a conventional spotlight, you might miss other important things appearing in your environment that you really should be shifting your attention towards.

But an attentional strobe which waxes and wanes allows you to do this. You can still focus effectively on what’s important, but you can also pay attention to your surroundings so as not to miss anything more critical. And all within your available bank of brain power.

A win-win all around for attention.

If you would like to find out more about the fundamentals behind how your brain works and how to use this to maximise your brain power, then please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential

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