Necessary for learning, our attention span is also essential for accomplishing our everyday tasks. To preserve and cultivate this precious faculty, which is particularly vulnerable in the digital age, it’s essential to understand better its mechanisms to identify the factors we can influence and those we’d better let go of. Here are five surprising facts about attention to help you understand it better!
One sensation, three networks.
Although perceived as a single sensation, attention results from the intervention of several mechanisms in cortical and subcortical regions, ranging from the parietal lobe (at the back of the brain) to the frontal lobe (at the front). While several explanatory models have been proposed to describe the underlying mechanisms, the one that still serves as the reference is the model proposed in 1990 by Michael Posner, to which some adjustments have since been made thanks to advances in neuroimaging. Proposals from other researchers have complemented Posner’s model, shedding new light on the subtypes of attention. According to Posner’s model, attention unfolds in three physiologically and functionally distinct but interrelated networks: alerting, orienting and executive control. The alerting network tells us “when” to pay attention; the orienting network tells us “what” to pay attention to, while the executive control network tells us “how” to process information. Working to improve executive attention is one of the keys to better learning in both children and adults.
Distraction: an integral part of the attentional system
Just as forgetting is essential for memory to function properly, “normal” distraction (not aggravated by a health or other problem) is not in itself a malfunction of the attentional system; rather, it is an integral part of it, and without it, we would be at a serious behavioural disadvantage. This is because, as a selection mechanism, attention implies that we make ourselves unavailable for a given time to information or activities other than the “chosen” one – let’s use quotation marks here since this selection, which occurs several times a second, is most often unconscious. However, this state of “stability” cannot last too long, or we risk missing out on more advantageous opportunities. This is what Aston-Jones and Cohen (2005) were the first to put forward when they applied the exploitation-exploration dilemma to the brain’s decision-making process. This dilemma explains that stability – being “stuck” in one place – can come at a cost. From this point of view, it’s only natural that, after a while of focusing on one thing, we start to feel all sorts of little alarm bells and whistles, prompting us to turn our attention elsewhere.
When stress sharpens attention and memory
The brain areas with the most stress hormone receptors are the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex, three interconnected regions involved in the development of new memories. One of the effects of cortisol is precisely to sharpen our ability to memorize information that, in a stressful situation, is useful to our survival so that we are warned and better equipped in the event of a similar experience. Having said that, stress hormones are also secreted when we experience… happy moments. In fact, events that trigger strong emotions in us, whether positive or negative, have the power to capture our attention and are better remembered. This explains why we remember in detail the context in which we found ourselves on September 11, 2001, for example, a phenomenon known as “flashbulb memory,” which is part of our autobiographical memory.
In 1999, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted a now-famous experiment at Harvard University. We’ll refrain from describing the video of the test in case you’d like to take it. This test of selective attention makes it blatantly obvious that, despite our impression of being attentive to everything in our immediate environment, many things – even obvious things! – are likely to escape our notice. This phenomenon, known as “inattentional blindness,” is explained by the fact that our executive attention, which acts as a bottleneck, is limited (Dehaene, 2014b). Thus, when a task monopolizes our attention, surrounding stimuli that are irrelevant can be processed in one of two ways; they can either remain visible but are then processed offline or become “invisible.”
More focused, less tired
Being absorbed in a task without our attention being “divided” or our mind constantly wandering is not in itself a source of fatigue – on the contrary. “By being totally involved in what we’re doing, without trying to do several things at the same time, we also reduce conflict in the brain: there’s no longer any doubt about what’s important and what isn’t. […] We don’t have to worry about what’s important and what’s not. […] There is no negative interference between brain regions involved in contradictory cognitive processes. The result is a feeling of calm: what is commonly known as mental overload is reduced,” explains cognitive neuroscientist and attention specialist Jean-Philippe Lachaux. This state of involvement can be linked to the state of flow, “a psychological state of profound well-being, intense concentration and motivation, which is reached when an activity constitutes a challenge perceived as equal to or slightly superior to the skills one possesses.”