07. Learning

How to Train Multiple Types of Attention

June 22, 2017

Paying close attention to something is not always easy. In fact, it was reported that even goldfish have longer attention spans than we do. It’s evident that our brain can only take so much focus and our attention is constantly being pulled in different directions.

Tristan Harris, a former Google Product Manager, even admitted that phone and social media apps are engineered with the primary purpose of grabbing our attention. You may be surprised to know though that attention involves a lot more than simply what we’re focusing on. It also involves what information our brain is trying to filter out. At a fundamental level, it’s a selection process.

Directing Attention

There are two ways we direct our attention. First, there’s overt attention where you move your eyes towards something in order to pay attention to it. Then, there’s covert attention where you pay attention to something, but without moving your eyes.

Your overt attention is in front of you because it relates to the direction of your eyes. In contrast, covert attention is where you’re not directly looking. It’s what is always scanning your surrounding area.

Shifting Our Focus

As a cognitive function, attention is particularly interesting because we can shift our focus not only by our eyes, but also by thinking. This particular quality is what fostered curiosity in Mehdi Ordikhani-Seyedlar, a computational neuroscientist, who works on cognitive brain-machine interfaces.

Ordikhani-Seyedlar studies brain patterns so that he can build models for computers, which can then recognize how well our brain functions. Consequently, if our brain doesn’t function well, then the computers can be used as assistive devices for therapy.

Determining Brainwave Patterns

Ordikhani-Seyedlar set up an experiment to determine our brainwave patterns when we look overtly and covertly. By analyzing their brain signals, he was able to track where exactly the participants were looking and what they were paying attention to.

What was interesting is that when they paid covert attention, parts of the frontal area of the brain were activated. Previous studies have shown that areas of the brain activated by covert and overt shifts of attention are very similar – signals coming from the back of the head. Ordikhani-Seyedlar’s study, however, exemplifies that these types of attention may need closer inspection.

Inhibiting Distractors

As a human, the front part of your brain is responsible for higher cognitive functions. It appears that the front part acts as a filter which lets the information you are paying attention to enter, while inhibiting the information coming from ignored stimuli.

The filtering ability of the brain is key for attention, which is missing in certain people, such as those with ADHD. An individual with ADHD, for instance, cannot inhibit these distractors which explains why they are unable to focus for a long time on a single task.

Technology to Improve Attention

NeuroTracker helps to train the brain by maximizing overt attention while inhibiting distractors. In a NeuroTracker training session, users put on 3D glasses and are asked to track multiple objects simultaneously moving around their screen. Its 3D multiple object tracking (MOT) task taps into four main properties of attention: sustained, distributed, selective and dynamic.

NeuroTracker for ADHD

In an experiment conducted on students with learning disabilities, NeuroTracker showed that it was able to improve attention within a period of five weeks. A team at the Perceptual Neuroscience Laboratory for Autism and Development at McGill University conducted the experiment. The researchers wanted to explore if the MOT task could help students:

  • Selectively focus and direct attention to relevant information
  • Ignore distracting events
  • Distribute attention among multiple stimuli
  • Sustain this level of focus for a period of time

The experiment’s promising results reinforce the fact that NeuroTracker is not simply a visual training exercise. As a technology that trains covert, as well as overt attention, it represents an innovative cognitive approach in neuroscience. NeuroTracker presents a lot of potential in understanding how our brain operates and further enhancing our higher cognitive functions.

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