How our attention span works remains a mystery, brain researcher says at OMED21

There are three prominent theories on attention, said author and developmental molecular biologist John Medina, PhD.

Today, researchers know surprisingly little about how the brain pays attention to things, said author and developmental molecular biologist John Medina, PhD, during a recent OMED21 keynote speech.

There are many theories on attention span, but none have been definitively proven, Dr. Medina, who has studied and written about the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders, noted.

“We have so many theories because we have no idea how you pay attention,” he said.

Dr. Medina is also an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and founding director of the Talaris Research Institute in Seattle. In his 40-minute speech, Dr. Medina addressed the main theories about how our brain reacts to stimuli.

The talk was divided into four main parts, which addressed the following:

1. The cognitive neuroscience of paying attention
2. The selectivity of your brain’s filter
3. The challenges of Zoom meetings
4. The impact of social interactions on attentional states

Part one covered just a few of the many proposed cognitive theories about how we attend to specific stimuli:

• Spotlight theory: Attention acts like a spotlight, focusing on specific inputs. Notably, this theory suggests that the brain cannot multitask, because the spotlight can only focus on one thing at a time.

• Triesman’s attenuation model: Attention functions like a stereo’s volume control knob, allowing some inputs to become louder so the brain can attend to them.

• Broadbent’s filter: Attention is like a processive series of filters, which selectively allow the brain to become aware of some inputs but not others.

To further complicate matters, Dr. Medina explained that there appear to be multiple systems in the brain responsible for attentional behavior.

“Memory is not a unitary phenomenon,” says Dr. Medina. “Attention probably isn’t either.”

Part two defined inattentional blindness as a failure to notice unexpected but perceptible stimuli in a visual scene while one’s attention is focused on something else in the scene, and discussed how the American Psychological Association discovered the theory.

Part three discussed the challenges virtual communication pose on one’s attention: it can be difficult to determine how much eye contact is best and how to best connect with those on your Zoom screen.

In part four, Dr. Medina rounded out the speech by discussing the theory of mind, which is the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs, intents, and desires) to oneself and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. These considerations can cause your brain to pay more or less attention to others.

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Dr. Medina’s 2008 book, explains what scientists know about how the brain works and explores short maxims on optimum brain function, for those who want to delve deeper. For instance, listening to music can boost cognition and exercising boosts brain power. The book became a New York Times bestseller in 2009.

OMED21 participants who missed this session will be able to access it on-demand through Nov. 25. Registration for the virtual conference is open through Nov. 19.

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