When considering how the brain allows focused attention, it’s important to first describe what is referred to as the dual processing model of attention — in other words, how the brain processes information in two ways.
The model says attention is either automatic or controlled. In automatic processing cognition occurs with little effort, is automatic given a specific stimulus, and doesn’t interfere with other mental processes. Controlled processing is cognitively expensive, relies mainly on serial processing and is responsible for self-regulation.
Focusing attention is dependent on top-down processing while automatic attention is more focused on bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing is mainly triggered by the presence of environmental stimuli, while top-down processing is dependent on information in memory, including expectation of what might occur while engaging in the task.
It is generally assumed these different types of processes may involve different cortical circuitry. Ability to focus attention may be affected by the presence of various sensory cues. The ability to focus attention is limited, and the more complex the sensory environment the harder to focus on a particular task. The amount of effort required to complete a specific task is also important when considering the implications of the attentive process. If the task is routine little effort is required, but if the task is novel or not as familiar more effort is required.
Understanding attention helps us identify problems with multi-tasking and allows us the opportunity to set up an optimal learning environment. Knowledge about human attention has led to restrictions on cell phone use while driving. Attention capacities are limited, and using a cell phone while driving limits other attention processes. Assuming everything remains routine while driving, we may not experience any problems, as we’re engaging in automatic processing.
But once something unexpected occurs, such as a car pulling out in front of us, and we shift to controlled processing which is not as rapid as automatic, problems may occur.
In considering the limitations of attention imagine the following scenario: you find a parking spot that is tight and requires parallel parking. One of the first things you will probably do is turn the radio down. You turn the radio down so you can focus on getting the car in the parking space.
We can only focus attention on one task at a time. Trying to multi-task, such as studying and watching TV simultaneously, leads to a decrease in performance on each task.
Understanding attention helps us to understand the different processes required for functioning in our everyday environments, and helps us in identifying neurological problems that need to be identified and treated.
Rock climber photo available from Shutterstock