In The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., asserts that the subconscious mind can process approximately 20 million bits of information per second, while the conscious mind processes only about 40,000 bits in the same time frame. With so much input vying for your attention, how does your brain choose where to place your awareness? Researchers in the psychology department and Vanderbilt Vision Research Center at Vanderbilt University suggest that one big determinant in your attentional focus lies in the neural mechanism driving the process.
Scientists focused their study on how the brain attends to an object despite competition from overlapping stimuli. Using fMRI to assess activity patterns in early visual areas of attention, they found that the strength of the attentional bias (where you are inclined to focus your attention) in those primary areas predicts the quality of object-specific signals that reach your higher-level visual areas and hones your focus more completely.
What this means is that what your brain first notices from stimuli relating to objects contributes to how you later focus your attention on more complex and specific areas of those objects. Additionally, researchers found that the more you know about what captures your attention, the more likely you are to fully focus on it. For example, if you look at pictures of two people, one you know and one you don’t, you’re more likely to focus your attention on the person you know.
How Attention Works
According to cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, Ph.D., in your moment-to-moment experience the role of visual attention operates in four dominant ways that:
• orient you to see things in visual space
• focus you on one specific object
• inhibit your response to things outside the scope of your focus (“saliency”)
• allow you to handle multiple stimuli both in your environment and in your mind by helping you distinguish and choose among them.
There are two main building blocks of attention that form your process:
Posterior brain (bottom): This is your noncognitive, early aspect of attention that automatically occurs from sensory input. Specifically this relates to your vision (processed from the first hundredth millisecond of perceived stimuli) and spatial orienting (processed through both your eyes and ears, which send information and cause your attention to shift to the originating source). Because noticing these types of stimuli is noncognitive, you have zero control over how, when, where, and in what way you notice. Impairment of this area (in ways that cause it to be overactive) can lead to sleep disruption, sensory overload, confusion, and a feeling of dullness.
Prefrontal Cortex (top): This is your entirely cognitive, late aspect of attention, which determines meaning and action. Choosing what is salient, this process occurs one to three seconds after the stimulus is perceived. As the seat of your cognitive, analytical, and decision-making function, the prefrontal cortex allows you to express control over where you place your attention. Dysregulation of this area can lead to depression, fear, anxiety, rage, irritability, and impulsivity.
The overarching process of attention is to both notice and tune out. In a perfectly working system, you briefly recognize stimuli and then move on, returning your attention to a chosen place of importance. In order for attention to work properly, the bottom and top processes need to balance so that you decide how, when, and where to direct your attention.
Using Attention for Brain Change
One of the main ways your brain achieves change is through focused attention, an activity regulated by your prefrontal cortex. An inhibitory function that tells the brain and other systems to resist being distracted and remain focused in one area, attention is a constant process built from many individual processes. It’s also a skill you can boost with a little practice. Here are some tips:
1. Take notes. Stimuli happens both inside and outside the brain. You may be listening to what someone else is saying, for example, and then find yourself focused more on internal thoughts in response to what’s being said. It’s easy to let your mind run away from you. Or you can choose your focus this way: Jot down what you’re thinking so that the information is secure, then you can refocus your attention on the speaker.
2. Build the right experience. It can be hard to create an attitude of focused attention when you’re in the middle of a highly stimulating environment. Choose steps to help filter the scene and reduce chaos. On a noisy commute, for example, put on a headset that creates silence, white noise, or nonstimulating music.
3. Train your brain. Studies show that both mental and physical exercise help the brain build a facility for paying attention. Incorporating elements of each (such as meditation and a fitness regime) in sustained practice offers your brain opportunities to build neural pathways around this skill.
4. Flex your choice muscle. The basic mechanism of attention relies on a process of selection. While the process of attention may begin on the unconscious level, it quickly moves up to where it responds to your conscious decisions. When you focus, your brain makes a picture of the object. By carefully selecting the pictures your brain makes, you can increase your control over how you focus, plus what you feel, think, and experience when you do.
The more the world develops, including technological and other environmental advances, the more attention-challenged we become from early childhood through adulthood. The high speeds at which we travel in business and life, plus all our multitasking and balancing activities, mean the demands on our focus continue to expand. All of this can set the stage for feeling out of control with our attention. While the meta-view of what stimuli compete for your attention is vast, the micro-view of how you manage it remains within your personal domain. The challenge for you is to develop, strengthen, and use that domain.