In these times of over-solicitation, attention is a crucial factor in our cognitive efficiency, whether we are learning new things or simply doing many of our daily tasks. To preserve and cultivate it, the first step is to know its unique mechanisms in order to identify the factors we can influence and those to ignore. Let’s decipher it in 15 points!
From “perception” to “attention.” It was the German philologist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a precursor of psychology, who, in the 17th century, gave scientific status to attention by proposing the concept of “apperception,” a perception that is accompanied by reflection and awareness, as opposed to simple perception. In 1890, the founder of American psychology, William James, proposed a definition of attention that was to become a standard, describing it as ” the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought […] [involving] the withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others […].” This definition is in line with today’s cognitive approach. Even then, James asserted that education “par excellence” is the one that develops these faculties of stabilizing one’s attention.
Mechanisms under the microscope. Since the 1990s, advances in functional brain imaging (fMRI) have allowed us to better understand attention mechanisms and confirm or refute specific explanatory models put forward prior. Although the mysteries of attention have not yet been fully unravelled, the importance of continuing to explore its mechanisms is not in doubt. In 1992, Michael Posner, an American psychologist and leading authority in the field, stated that “the study of attention is to the understanding of consciousness what the study of DNA is to the understanding of life” (Posner, 1992).
Plural definition. In the field of psychology, several definitions have been proposed over time. For example, Picton et al. (1986) have categorized attention into three categories, depending on whether they describe it as “a process that selects some information and ignores others,”; “a resource attributed to mental processes that facilitate the selection of information,”; or “a state of mind in which we place ourselves to receive information and manage it.”
Some essential criteria. Notwithstanding the diversity of angles from which attention is considered, a few criteria appear to be essential to describe it. According to the analysis of Poissant, Falardeau and Poëllhuber (1993), attention is “always oriented according to the person’s goals and needs (Gibson et al., 1979). […] [It] is, therefore, a limited process in terms of quantity and duration. It restricts the information available and ensures that only a small portion of it will be used for subsequent behaviour. Without this restriction, the organism would be flooded with information, and behaviour would go in all directions (Simon, 1986). Moreover, it can only select information for a short period of time (Grabe, 1986; Simon, 1986).” Nowadays, the multidimensional nature of attention is agreed upon, and it is approached as a function of selection, distribution of resources, regulation of behaviour, and control of behaviour.
From one type of attention to another. Sohlberg and Mateer’s model, commonly used to diagnose neurological disorders, breaks down attention into five components: focused, sustained, selective, alternating and divided attention. Very similar to concentration, focused attention is the ability to respond in a targeted manner to a relevant sensory stimulus while inhibiting irrelevant stimuli. The other four components can be classified into two groups. The first group includes sustained attention and selective attention, both of which refer to a situation in which the focus must be on one thing at a time. The second group, which includes alternating attention and divided attention, refers to situations where attention must be focused on more than one object.
One sensation, three networks. Although perceived as a single sensation, attention results from the contribution of several mechanisms in cortical and subcortical regions, ranging from the parietal lobe (back of the brain) to the frontal lobe (front). As in the case of definitions, several explanatory models have been proposed to describe the mechanisms that underlie it. The one that still serves as a 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, particularly in terms of the subtypes of attention. According to Posner’s model, attention unfolds in three physiologically and functionally distinct but interrelated networks: alertness, attention 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, both in children and adults.
Under the influence of working memory. The attentional system is under the influence of working memory, which is essential to our executive functions and is involved in most of our behaviours. However, the capacity of this memory is limited (Sweller, 1988; Mousavie et al., 1995). Thus, the more cognitively demanding a task is, the more difficult it is for working memory to process and the more time and attention it requires. In the event that working memory is overloaded – referred to as “cognitive overload” – exchanges between the three brain regions involved are short-circuited (Miller et al., 2018).
Struggling brain systems. In our brains, systems that could be called “prodistraction” and those that are “proattention” are in a tug-of-war at all times. “At the cerebral level, attention is the fact of favouring a particular group of neurons at the expense of the others,” summarizes Jean-Philippe Lachaux, a cognitive neuroscientist and attention specialist. “The role, the goal of attention, is to make a selection. We talk about selective attention: selection between all the things that happen to us, between all the ways we can process the same stimulus, between all the thoughts we can have. There is a jungle of things around us, and we have to select; we can only take a part of it to process it in depth. This selection is all the more difficult as there are more things around us,” explains the neuroscientist.
Our “prodistraction” systems. One of our two “prodistraction” systems is the parietal lobe, which plays a determining role in the integration of sensory information. As Jean-Philippe Lachaux illustrates, this region of the brain obeys its environment and prompts us to act according to our habits: “It is this system that is notably behind the movements of our gaze [but it] also extends to mental perceptions: for example, the perception of a telephone will trigger a gesture of using the telephone.” The second system that works to destabilize our attention is the reward circuit. According to our desires and tastes, this circuit modifies the “saliency map,” a sort of cerebral map of the elements of our environment that seem at first sight to deserve our attention. We can speak of a pre-attention system, a first filter through which the stimuli pass.
Our control system. It is the executive system, located in the frontal lobe, that must battle these two powerful “prodistraction” systems. It determines how the selected information will be processed and governs all of the high-level processes that we refer to as “executive control,” which allow us to adapt to new or non-routine situations, i.e. planning, selecting, initiating, executing and supervising voluntary behaviours with a goal. Note that the evolution of executive control occurs gradually during childhood and is crucial in developing an individual’s behaviour. Without attention, our behaviour cannot be coherent.
Challenges to the executive system. One complicating factor in the executive system’s work to maintain attention is that the executive system is itself divided, as it must juggle multiple goals and “make decisions. It can happen that the executive system wins the game,” says Jean-Philippe Lachaux, “but we should not be surprised that quite often we get distracted because other systems are active and counterbalance its influence.” Let’s add to this that certain conditions increase this phenomenon of distraction tenfold; in addition to attention deficit disorders and brain damage, there is stress, fatigue, addictions, easy pleasures, a lack of psychological flexibility, etc.
Distraction: an integral part of the attentional system. Just as forgetting is essential to the proper functioning of memory, “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 one “chosen” – 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, at the risk of missing out on more advantageous opportunities… this is what Aston-Jones and Cohen (2005) were the first to put forward by applying the exploitation-exploration dilemma to the brain’s decision-making process. This dilemma explains that stability, or being “stuck” in one place, can have a cost. From this perspective, it would be normal that after a while of focusing on one thing, we start to feel all sorts of little warning signals that make us turn our attention elsewhere.
Perception-action loop. Our sensory-motor system is designed to learn by interacting with our environment through what is called a perception-action loop or cycle, which translates into the fact that every perception (sensory, emotional, intellectual, etc.) leads to an action – most often a motor or “use” gesture, but it can also be thinking, speaking, etc. – and that this action, in turn, leads to a change in the way we perceive and use our environment. – and that, in turn, every action leads to perception. In this loop, which occurs 3 to 4 times per second, attention intervenes just before perception, and in many cases, because things happen so quickly, action follows directly after perception without any reflection; this process is then limited to a reaction. Three factors determine the reaction to what is perceived: habit, which tends to make us react in one way rather than another; general usefulness, which is what we tend to find useful or pleasant; and specific usefulness, which is what we find useful in order to achieve our current goal.
Attentional blindness. In 1999, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted a now-famous experiment at Harvard University. We won’t describe the video of the test, in case you want to take it. This test of selective attention allows us to observe in a flagrant way that despite our impression of being attentive to everything that takes place in our immediate environment, many things – even obvious ones! – are likely to escape us. This phenomenon, which is called “attentional blindness,” is explained by the fact that our executive attention, which acts as a bottleneck, is limited (Dehaene, 2014b). Thus, when a task consumes 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.”
No learning without attention. Attention is the first of the four pillars of learning highlighted by cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene. Although the mechanisms underlying attention can be strengthened in adulthood, it is during childhood that executive control quietly develops. “Since attention determines learning, mobilizing children’s attention is a priority goal,” says Dehaene. In adulthood, strategies to improve attention include learning about the mechanisms of attention (and distraction!), developing metacognitive skills, and identifying goals in order of priority and focusing on one at a time for 5 to 10 minutes. Evoking the image of the tightrope walker on the beam, Jean-Philippe Lachaux proposes a new paradigm: “It will no longer be a question of talking about force, but of being able to observe these great systems of forces that act on attention, to observe them in action; we will talk about sensitivity, that is, sensing when a force begins to lead and take over; and we will talk about tact, about fine control, a bit like the tightrope walker.”
Communication Strategist and Senior Editor @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi
Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.