It is a scenario that has played out in many households across the world. You are just about to leave the house, rushing to an important appointment. And then the realisation strikes.
Where on earth are your car keys?
You set off around your house, searching frantically in all the usual places you might leave them. But what is going on inside your brain when you are doing this – when you are visually searching for an object within your environment? And what kind of mental processes are you engaging to aid you with this task?
Attention: Your brain’s prioritization system.
Although there are likely to be many thoughts going on inside your head at this moment, one of the main systems that is helping you with your search is your attentional system. This is a network of well-defined brain regions spanning across your parietal, occipital, frontal and temporal cortices which are specifically involved in prioritizing the way your brain allocates its mental focus.
In terms of your visual attention, this means that your brain controls where your eyes are looking within your external spatial world – either covertly without obvious looking, or overtly, where there is a closer alignment between your eye movements and the direction of your attentional focus.
But there are other types of attention as well – the type which allows you to pay attention to one object or task for a sustained period of time (so-called sustained attention or vigilance), or the type that allows you to focus on several things at once when you are trying to multitask (so-called divided attention). And of course attention doesn’t just have to be in the visual domain, the same principles apply when you are paying attention to other sensory signals like sounds or smells.
Look at me!
From a scientific perspective, there are two major factors which can influence where, and what, in your sensory world you pay attention to.
Firstly your sensory-rich surroundings are full of objects, colours and sounds which are trying to grab your attention – so-called “bottom-up” attention.
In some instances, the information that these sensory messages convey might be useful. Maybe an important sign telling you where to go. But in many instances, they can be unwanted distractions. “Noise” which interferes with the task at hand. Maybe it’s some loud chatter and laughter from a nearby group of people when you are trying to quietly work, or bright colourful adverts by the roadside when you are trying to concentrate on the traffic ahead.
And although the brain has mechanisms in place which allow us to repress these unwanted distractions so that we can maintain a state of inner concentration or focused attention, set-ups like that from the illusionist Derren Brown shows us that the brain still takes in some of this information at a subconscious level. The fact that this happens without us even realising is yet another reminder of how our brain is picking up on all sorts of pieces of information to guide our behaviour, without necessarily telling us it has done so!
Ah yes, I remember where I left them!
But it is not just our external surroundings which guide us where to look. Where to search. Our memory also instructs us as well – so-called “top-down” attention. For example, you may use your memory of where you left your keys on previous occasions to guide where you look this time.
And this is where your attention system and memory system work together – something that can be picked up on brain scans. For example, a study from the University of Oxford showed how your hippocampus – a region involved in spatial memory – works together with your attention system to tell your brain, and eyes, where to look to find an object (like your keys) which is “lost” somewhere within a busy scene.
A two-way relationship.
But more recently, scientists have shown that it isn’t just the case that memory guides how and where you pay attention. The relationship between attention and memory is two-way.
For example, you can also use your attention to optimize your “working” memory – the type of short-term memory which contains the different bits of information that you are trying to mentally juggle in your immediate thinking (rather than store away for later). By using your attention to prioritise specific pieces of information within your working memory, you can actually make your working memory operate more efficiently. This is critical because of your working memory capacity – in other words, the number of thoughts that you can hold in your mind at any one time – is relatively limited.
Coping with information overload.
Often we think of attention as the mental process which allows us to focus and concentrate on something. But from your brain’s perspective attention is so much more than that.
It is a way of making sure that your brain only spends its time and energy on what is important to you at that particular moment in time and doesn’t waste valuable neural resources processing, interpreting or acting upon irrelevant information.
As our lives, and our living environments become increasingly crowded, and people strive to cope with information overload, having a way to simplify your thinking is most welcome.
If you want to find out more about the way different brain systems work to guide your behaviour then please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential.