IN THE FAST-PACED, distraction-plagued arena of modern life, perhaps nothing has come under more assault than the simple faculty of attention. We bemoan the tug of war for our focus, joke uneasily about our attention-deficit lifestyles, and worry about the seeming epidemic of attention disorders among children.
The ability to pay careful attention isn't important just for students and air traffic controllers. Researchers are finding that attention is crucial to a host of other, sometimes surprising, life skills: the ability to sort through conflicting evidence, to connect more deeply with other people, and even to develop a conscience.
But for all that, attention remains one of the most poorly understood human faculties. Neither a subject nor a skill, precisely, attention is often seen as a fixed, even inborn faculty that cannot be taught. Children with attention problems are medicated; harried adults struggle to "pay attention." In a sense, our reigning view of attention hasn't come far from that of William James, the father of American psychological research, who dolefully asserted a century ago that attention could not be highly trained by "any amount of drill or discipline."
But now scientists are rapidly rewriting that notion. After decades of research powered by fresh advances in neuroimaging and genetics, many scientists are drawing a much clearer picture of attention, which they have come to see as an organ system like circulation or digestion, with its own anatomy, circuitry, and chemistry. Building upon this new understanding, researchers are discovering that skills of focus can be bolstered with practice in both children and adults, including those with attention-deficit disorders. In just five days of computer-based training, the brains of 6-year-olds begin to act like adults on a crucial measure of attention, one study found. Another found that boosting short-term memory seems to improve children's ability to stay on task.
It is not yet known how long these gains last, or what the best methods for developing attention may turn out to be. But the demand is clear: Dozens of schools nationwide are already incorporating some kind of attention training into their curriculum. And as this new arena of research helps overturn long-standing assumptions about the malleability of this essential human faculty, it offers intriguing possibilities for a world of overload.
"If you have good attentional control, you can do more than just pay attention to someone speaking at a lecture, you can control your cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your actions," says Amir Raz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University who is a leading attention researcher. "You can enjoy and gain an edge in life."
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Attention has long fascinated humankind as a window into the mind and the world in general, yet its workings have historically been murky. Eighteenth-century scientists, who considered unwavering visual observation crucial to scientific discovery, theorized that attention was a "pooling" of nervous fluid. Later, Victorian scientists eagerly probed the limits and vulnerability of attention, treating the subject of their inquiry with a mix of puzzlement and admiration. "Whatever its nature, [attention] is plainly the essential condition of the formation and development of mind," wrote Henry Maudsley in the early 1830s.
More recently, scientists have used advances in genetics and imaging technologies that can map brain activity to formulate more detailed theories of what, exactly, attention is. It has been compared to a filter, a mental spotlight, and a tool for allocating our cognitive resources. Increasingly however, attention is viewed as a complex system comprising three networks, or types of attention: focus, awareness, and "executive" attention, which governs planning and higher-order decision-making. According to this model, first proposed by University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael I. Posner, the three attentional networks are independent, yet work closely together.
Armed with an improved sense of how attention works, Posner and others have begun researching whether attention can be trained. And their findings have been intriguing.
After years of research into how attention networks develop, Posner and colleague Mary K. Rothbart began experimenting a few years ago with training children's attention. They targeted children 6 and under, since executive attention develops rapidly between ages 4 and 7. Inspired by computer-learning work with monkeys, Posner and Rothbart created a five-day computer-based program to strengthen executive attention skills such as working memory, self-control, planning, and observation. Building on a known link between this attention network and internal conflict resolution, one exercise challenges a child to pick the larger of two groups of objects, such as apples or numerals. In the latter case, the symbolic and the literal counts conflict, forcing concentrated thought.
After the training, Posner and Rothbart reported that 6-year-olds showed a pattern of activity in the anterior cingulate - a banana-shaped brain region that is ground zero for executive attention - similar to that of adults, along with slightly higher scores on IQ tests and a marked gain in executive attention. The children who were the most inattentive gained the most from the program. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and have since been replicated in similar experiments by Spanish researchers.
"We thought this was a long shot," says Posner, a lanky septuagenarian with a deep, rumbling voice. "Now I've changed my mind." Though small-scale, the results from his lab and others have been so remarkable that he and Rothbart are now calling on educators at conferences and in their book, "Educating the Human Brain," to consider teaching attention in preschool.
"We should think of this work not just as remediation, but as a normal part of education," Posner said in an address to the American Psychological Association in 2003, when he presented preliminary findings.
A parallel line of investigation is based on the close link between attention and memory. "Working memory" is the short-term cognitive storehouse that helps us recall a phone number or the image of a landscape; this type of memory is integral to executive attention. Tapping into this link, cognitive neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg of Sweden's Karolinska Institute devised computer software to improve executive attention by training working memory in teens and pre-adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Using a training program he calls "RoboMemo," Klingberg has helped children improve their working memory and complex reasoning skills, according to studies published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, among other publications. This appears to pay off in attention as well: The children were also reported to be less impulsive and inattentive by their parents, although their teachers largely did not report those behavioral improvements.
Christopher Lucas of New York University, one of the US researchers using Klingberg's software, used the RoboMemo training program to boost the visuospatial memory of a group of children, and found that as this type of working memory improved, they became more focused and compliant. Lucas, a psychiatrist, cautioned that such memory training isn't a quick fix for attention-deficit disorders. Working memory "is one of the areas that's implicated in ADHD," he says. "I don't think it's the whole story."
Other attention research eschews that kind of technology, instead investigating the attention-boosting potential of something very different: the 2,500-year-old tradition of meditative practice. With a long history but little scientific data on its effects, meditation has begun to intrigue neuroscientists in labs around the country, who are measuring the success of meditative practices that boost skills of focus and awareness.
Lidia Zylowska, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at UCLA, cofounded the university's Mindful Awareness Research Center and is a pioneer in the study of meditation's impact on human focus and attention.
In one study, Zylowska and colleagues reported that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation - a technique designed to improve attention and well-being largely by focusing on breathing - boosted both powers of focus and self-control in 24 adults and eight teens with ADHD. The work was published in May in the Journal of Attention Disorders. Others are finding similar gains from meditation in those without ADHD. Preliminary results from the largest attention-training study to date, which tracked 64 people meditating full-time for three months, reveal improved sustained attention and visual discrimination, says the lead researcher, UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron, who presented the results at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society's annual meeting in April.
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If focus skills can be groomed, as research has begun to hint, the important next question is whether, and how, attention should be integrated into education. Will attention become a 21st-century "discipline," a skill taught by parents, educators, even employers? Already a growing number of educators are showing interest in attention training, mostly through the practice of meditation in the classroom.
Susan Kaiser Greenland, a former corporate lawyer who started the nonprofit InnerKids Foundation in 2001 to teach meditation practices in communities and schools, says demand outstrips her staffing. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit works with children ages 4 to 12.
"The kids are stressed out, they are distracted, and they are not able to sit still," she says. "There are more schools interested in our work than we can possibly serve."
But with the field of attention training still in its infancy, scientists don't yet understand if any current teaching has long-lasting gains - or, for that matter, which practices work best. Some researchers, for example, question computer-based efforts as too narrow in scope, arguing that children must be taught attention holistically, as a life skill. No brief training regime is likely to be a magic bullet, they say.
"Part of the problem in today's society is that people are looking for extremely quick fixes that have no vision. People are looking to lose 20 pounds for the wedding next week," says Raz at McGill. "But attention training is a slow process."
Nonetheless, with global use of controversial ADHD medicines tripling since the early 1990s and evidence mounting that attention can be strengthened, researchers are permitting themselves a bit of cautious excitement at the prospect that attention training could work, especially for children.
"Attention is such a basic skill that children need, and to be able to impact that skill, to teach them how to redirect their attention and how to become more aware of themselves, their bodies, emotions, and thoughts - it's an exciting thing," says Zylowska. "It's also critical."
Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," published this month.