Attention, genes, and developmental disorders: What is attention?

This is my second book club post on Kim Cordish’s and John Wilding’s Attention, Genes, and Developmental Disorders. My previous post can be found here.

Chapter 2, “What is attention?” jumps right to the substance.

As my commenter Weiwen already observed, attention is a multi-dimensional concept. One might define attention as coherent, organized, and goal-directed behavior…maintained in the face of distractions. This is a useful and plausible definition, but it can’t be fully right.

For one thing, your brain must decide what actually counts as a distraction. The inability to shift one’s attention in response to urgent information is—itself–an attentional disorder.  Sometimes the right response to important new information is to alter or abandon one’s immediate goal. Suppose, for example, that I’m at the store searching for yogurt. A fellow shopper falls to the floor in front of me because he’s having a heart attack. That’s not a distraction. If I stepped over him to continue my obsessive yogurt search, such behavior wouldn’t indicate concentration and focus. It would instead reflect a serious failure of executive function.

Our brains use many capacities to process a variety of external information. This information arrives in a steady stream. The simple act of yogurt buying requires a surprisingly complex sequence of skills: remembering where the yogurt is located, being alert to pertinent new information, being able to avoid the potential distraction provided by other information.

Pondering even very simple tasks, it’s obvious that attention can fail for different reasons in different ways. Some of the earliest research on these attention processes concerned vigilance: maintaining attention in low-input situations. How, for example, can radar operators spot rare but crucial signals that randomly appear after long periods of boring nothingness and false alarms?

Experiments indicate that vigilance declines depressingly rapidly. You might think that people become fatigued and just miss things. It’s more complicated than that. People seem to become jaded or complacent. They adjust their prior probability assessments to become more skeptical that an incoming signal represents a true threat. They detect fewer threats, and report fewer false alarms, too. You’re driving at night from Chicago to Cleveland on I-80. Two hours in, you catch an initial glimpse of something ahead of you in the road. Surely that’s not a person. There must be a smudge on the windshield or some blowing snow.

Other attention research concerned similar technologies but the opposite problem, in high-input situations. How do air traffic controllers recognize and address crucial problems that are often hidden within a barrage of other incoming data. In college, I worked as a short-order cook in a busy restaurant where cashiers would shout out a succession of orders during the crush of the dinner hour. I found it quite difficult to maintaining constant vigilance, particularly as I experienced physical and mental fatigue from the work. One’s circuits overload, perhaps literally.  As Dan Kahneman emphasizes in his own research and his recent book, maintaining attention in both high-input and low-input situations requires difficult mental effort that can exceed our available capacities.

These efforts are heavily dependent on control processes that occur in the brain’s frontal lobe. These processes coordinate our short-term switching of attention from one task or piece of information to another, as well as the holding of attention despite potential distractions.

Many researchers have sought to clarify the executive functions behind these processes. Some common themes are worth noting (p. 50):

  1. Planning a strategy to address complex novel tasks, including situations where multiple tasks must be undertaken. Our brains analyze specific situations to determine the specific tasks that must be accomplished, and the specific operations required to accomplish the task, including establishing and controlling “the execution of sequences of selecting inputs and responses.” We must also hold the required information in working memory to accomplish the task. No less important, we must inhibit inappropriate responses, for example suppressing habitual responses to related familiar situations that don’t work in performing this novel task.
  2. Maintaining attention to a plan, particularly when there are either frequent competing demands on our attention or when the required information arrives rarely and therefore might be missed.

If you are a policy person, your own attention may wander to organizational themes. How can homeland security agencies maintain the vigilance to recognize rare but deadly terrorist conspiracies? How can we design the control room of a nuclear reactor so that human beings actually respond to rare but crucial danger signs? How can we design surgical teams to minimize risks of medical errors or to improve vigilant responses to emergencies?  These are interesting questions. I hope to return to them.

But that’s not where Cornish and Wilding are headed. They want to understand what goes wrong in human brains that produces attention disorders: How genes and environment interact with these problems, how attentional problems can be ameliorated through training or through medications.

Chapter Three, “Genes and atypical attention,” takes up these questions. It introduces some important genetic conditions associated with attentional disorders.


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