MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: Name of brain function that focuses attention on certain things

Date: Fri Oct 20 13:47:55 2006
Posted By: Meghan Clayards, Grad student, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 1158290277.Ns


I haven’t been able to track down a particular name for the phenomena that you described, but you can try looking through this list to see if you spot it. But you’re right, what we notice in our environment is determined by our mental state at the time. There is a lot of information in the environment, much of which is not relevant to us at a particular point in time. Therefore, the brain has to choose which aspects to consider for further processing and which aspects to ignore. This process is commonly referred to as attention and it functions in every domain of cognition. Another good example is when you’re at a party and you’re trying to listen to the person you’re talking to, you can often ignore the conversations around you, and if you were asked what they were talking about you wouldn’t be able to recall it. On the other hand, if someone nearby mentions your name, you’ll immediately hear it. This shows that even though you weren’t attending to that conversation, it was still getting into your brain and being considered for further processing. In fact we know that attention can change how you process all kinds of stimuli and some people think it is not really a single process (like a movie director in the brain), but something that works within every subsystem when it gets overloaded (e.g. visual processing, or working memory).

Recent work with brain imaging techniques have investigated one aspect of attention, visual attention, and found that it affects activity in many parts of the brain used in visual processing. On the one hand it can be seen in primary visual cortex, the area that gets visual information first, and on the other hand large areas of frontal and parietal cortex are involved, which are associated with higher level processing like decision making and information integration. In the cognitive science literature, attention is not precisely defined and it seems to be everywhere and affect everything, so people argue over what exactly it is or what parts of the brain may be responsible for it. What we do know is that our brains are really good at deciding what’s relevant and ignoring what’s not. Importantly, what’s relevant can change from day to day and moment to moment, so while we may never have noticed all those BMWs or pregnant women before, now that they’re relevant, we do.

For further reading, here is a review article on visual attention and the brain:
nature neuroscience review article

You can also check out these websites for discriptions of ongoing research on visual attention:
research at Columbia University
research at Vanderbilt University
research at the University of Iowa

I hope this helps,

Meghan Clayards

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