The brain cannot multitask. Brain regions like the frontal and parietal cortex control what and how the brain pays attention.
“Are you deaf? I’ve been calling you for the last 5 minutes!”
This is a scenario we’ve all faced. Engrossed in the TV or our smartphones, we didn’t hear someone addressing us. We plead our case saying “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!” Obviously, we’re not believed. Who could fail to hear their mother yelling their own name? But that momentary deafness is real. We really didn’t hear anything. This is a common side effect of focusing intensely on something that one goes a little deaf or in cases blind.
Another side effect is fatigue. Paying attention is difficult. Anyone who has ever had to concentrate to study for an exam (most of us) will know that the temptation to go to sleep or scroll through social media is big.
These instances raise an interesting implication, the brain must selectively pay attention to some things and ignore others. If so, how does it do that?
What Is Attention?
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is 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. … It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others…” Notes William James in 1890 in one of the earliest discussions about attention (The Principles of Psychology, pp. 403–404).
Let’s take a little test. Watch the following video and pay attention to the instructions carefully.
If you’re reading this, you’ve either taken the test (great!) or skipped ahead.
But if you watched the video, I bet you didn’t see the gorilla ambling through that intense tossing match, did you?
This experiment was performed on undergraduate test subjects (offered mere chocolate bars as thanks) by Researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Chabris and Simons’ collaboration on studying attention began when they met at Harvard University in 1997. They showed their undergraduate guinea pigs the gorilla video and noted how many of them noticed the Gorilla. Almost half didn’t.
Most people I’ve shown this video to also don’t spot the gorilla. When I ask them about the gorilla at the end, they react with disbelief, surprise and alarm. “I was staring right at the screen. Why didn’t I notice it?” they say.
Besides being entertaining, the researchers were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, a prize given to improbable research, it exposes our flawed brains to us. It confronts us with what psychologists call inattentional blindness.
It is the failure to notice something unexpected, like a gorilla in a basketball match, when one is focussing on something else, like the number of passes. Your brain ignores all other information that isn’t necessary to the task you are concentrating on. While you were watching the video, the passes were of utmost importance. The gorilla wasn’t the information that you required to know the number of passes.
And this is what attention is. This is how the brain pays attention in real life as well.
A relatable example of Inattentional Blindness
For a more relatable example consider the following scenario. You’re at a party. There is food, drink, music and a whole lot of talking. You’ve met your school friend after ages and begin to catch up on missed moments. You’ll notice (or won’t) that you don’t have any trouble holding a conversation with your friend. All the chatter around you never reaches you; like you are deaf to it.
This is what fun people call the ‘cocktail party effect’ or what the ‘unfun’ ones call selective hearing or inattentional deafness. It is the real-life version of how selective our attention is.
William James’s definition of attention probably makes a lot more sense now. Although, the complexities such as inattentional blindness and deafness, how the environment pulls our attention involuntarily, or how the brain switches from paying attention to one stimulus to another have only increased.
Our imperfect brains
Take a moment to look around you right now. There are a hundred different things that you could focus on. All the visual stimulus (should you read the words, look at the font or all the recommended articles on the right-hand side?) around you, the cacophony of sounds, the smells (or lack of them), and how the body is positioned.
It is impossible for your brain to process all this information at once. Instead, your brain takes the easy way out, focusing on just a few things and tuning out everything else.
There is no attention center in the brain. Attention unlike fear, which neuroscientists have largely pinpointed to the amygdala, involved brain regions from everywhere. These networks involve multiple sensory systems and higher cognitive networks in the brain. Discussing them all would be like writing a neuroanatomy textbook. So, for the sake of brevity and not losing your attention, I’ll discuss the parts broadly.
The main attention network in the brain is the frontoparietal attention network. It involves connections between parts of the frontal lobe and parietal lobes.
Some specific brain regions involved in the network are the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, basal ganglia, superior colliculi, and the frontal eye fields (FEF). Different parts contribute to different facets of attention. It is interesting to note that many of the brain regions, like the FEF, which coordinate eye movement, in orienting the body towards the stimulus. Looking directly or tilting one’s head towards a sound seems to be necessary to focus.
The parietal cortex was first implicated when patients with damaged parietal lobes had trouble or couldn’t focus on a visual stimulus. The parietal cortex computes visual sensory information among other functions. Many different areas of the parietal cortex such as the inferior parietal lobe seem to be involved in attention.
The pulvinar nucleus in the thalamus is involved in sifting out irrelevant information out of multiple sensory inputs. The thalamus is frequently called the relay station that relays information from cortical and subcortical. It is like a post office sorting post to be delivered to the right address out of a large pile of information.
All these structures together process information and what gets attended to and what doesn’t. The brain computes sensory information and then sorts through it, deciding what gets our attention and what doesn’t. Inattentional blindness and deafness probably result out of this sorting prioritizing.
More than just gorillas and cocktail parties
Does it matter to know about how we pay attention?
Yes, it matters.
It matters because besides annoying your mother or not noticing a silly gorilla sashaying in a psych test, how we pay attention reveals to us ways in which our attention is fallible. Not spotting a gorilla or missing a friend waving at you are harmless examples.
But under high-pressure environments, this blindness can be cause for concern. Take driving for example. A distraction while driving could lead to a moment of blindness where one doesn’t notice a pedestrian crossing or a car turning a corner – a situation ripe for accidents.
Or consider a medical practitioner administering a drug to a patient. A slight diversion in attention and instead of administering the right dose, the patient recieves an overdose. Or picking up the wrong vial of a drug in a cabinet full of drugs. They are real-life scenarios that could happen and little slips like this could be life-threatening.
Studying the brain, how it processes information, and how it attends to that information allows us to create methods to prevent such accidents and other casualties from happening. Examples abound where an understanding of how quickly switching attention from one task to another, such as in air traffic control could prevent mistakes.
It also has implications for neurological disorders such as ADHD and others caused by accidents.
Scientists are only just realizing how complicated our brains are. It isn’t the supercomputer some science fiction makes it out to be or as organised as engineers would like it to be. Our brains, like the body it inhabits, has its limitations.
Paying attention requires effort putting a strain on energy, which, unfortunately, our brains have a limited resource of. In order to not overheat and combust, our imperfect brains devised a compromise, it neglects any information it doesn’t think it needs for a specific task.