Can I Have Your Attention Please?

The ability to focus and to avoid distractions –  i.e. to “pay attention” – is key for us. We constantly receive so much stimulation and information from our environment that without an ability to focus we would never be able to think clearly and to be effective.

Further, we also have our internal thoughts and emotions competing for our attention; not only do we ruminate about the past – going over previous events and re-experiencing the emotions and thoughts around those events – our brains are also able to “travel forward in time”-  imagining possible futures  or catastrophising –  and even to “mind travel” so that we imagine what others are thinking.

So, without being able to “pay attention” we would never be able to get anything done or to make considered decisions. Plus, in any emergency situation, is it is vital that we remain focused on making the right decisions and taking the actions that are required – panicking, becoming overwhelmed or distracted will not help us!

This week I came across this podcast from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre in which Professor Amishi Jha talks about the brain’s ability to “pay attention”. Amishi Jha is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. Her research on attention, working memory and mindfulness has investigated the neural bases of executive functioning and mental training using various cognitive neuroscience techniques. Here.

Professor Jha suggests that our “attention” is our ability to select information for consideration in pursuit of some current purpose or goal – that’s our ability to select from the available external information, our knowledge and our internal thoughts.  Interestingly, she suggests that our ability to pay attention develops late… and is only fully developed in our mid 20s (- note to self: cut the kids more slack).

The podcast explains the key cognitive subsystems that are involved in our ability to pay attention:

  • Orientation System – like a flashlight that we shine on the information on which we wish to focus – and so to diminish the attention we pay to the other stuff.
  • Alerting System – an ability to remain broadly vigilant for any “flashing light” that may require our attention or our caution.
  • Executive Function – our management system to direct our thinking and attention – while also taking care to respond to any incoming or ongoing issues (“a juggler”).
  • Working Memory – our short term memory – like a whiteboard that fades – that we use to keep track to the current issues that we are focusing on.

So, what can go wrong?  Well research shows that attention is diminished by  stress, threat and mood.  It seems reasonable that threats can grab our attention, and of course mood and negativity can be a distracting ( – this is where mindfulness techniques like self-compassion and choosing to “live in this moment” can be so helpful). But how does stress impact our attention?

Well, stress can cause our flashlight to become preoccupied by negative thoughts (of failure and it’s implications; or also of our perceived inability to get things done… to be “good enough”);  it can cause our alerting system to become hypervigilant – distracting us with issues that are not urgent or helpful to us; and stress may cause our executive function to become diminished so that we are distracted and fail to focus on critical issues.

Besides stress, we also face a significant challenge from the brain’s ability to “mind wander” – thinking “off task thoughts” during some ongoing activity.

Mind-wandering may be due to ruminations about the past, anxiety about the future, negative thoughts or even “mind travel”.  Studies show that Mind-wandering can lead to performance errors, variable” speed of response” to incoming stimuli, perceptual decoupling (we fail to notice the thing that we should) and low mood (negative thoughts).

The good news is that Professor Jha explains that her research shows that Mindfulness is reliable and exclusively effective to bolster our performance.  It is the practice of reducing distractions and mind-wandering which enables us to improve our attention skills… to set aside unhelpful distractions, thoughts and emotions.  Studies upon those who are stressed or in high-pressure environments – e.g. business professionals, students, athletes and elite soldiers –  have demonstrated the impact of Mindfulness training such a MBCT and MBSR to improve attention and to facilitate better decision-making in pressured or chaotic situations.

Maybe we all need to pay more attention to our attention.

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