How Attention Works (and Why it Often Doesn’t)

Attention is a more complex process than we think.  Wait, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention…  What were you saying?

In this complex modern world of ours, we are very rarely doing only one thing at a time. We read the paper while we eat, we talk on the phone while we drive, and, while we are doing most of the things we do, we are thinking about something else. But this means that we are not really paying attention to any of them, because the brain can only attend to one thing at a time. We talk about divided attention, but we really mean switching back and forth between attending to one thing, and then another, like when you are talking to someone while cooking dinner.

There are two sources of input to the brain – from the external environment (the world) and the internal environment (the body). The brain’s job is to integrate this information so that the needs of the body can be matched with the opportunities in the environment. The brain directs our attention to which particular event, of the many going on in the environment, is most relevant to the needs of the body. This includes the needs for food, warmth and safety – the avoidance of a threat.

The attentional process – filtering out irrelevant or conflicting information in order to fully process the important information, becomes less efficient when our survival is not at stake. When the emotional charge on things that are competing for our attention is not so strong, or not very much stronger than something else, attention becomes less reliable. It wanders.

A child who is hungry will not be able to focus on lessons in school, because the needs of the body take precedence over everything else, and it is virtually impossible to focus on anything else when you’re hungry. Likewise, when you are in danger. Danger exists, of course, on an emotional level, as well as a practical, physical level, and in a neighborhood where there is regular gunfire, or a household in which there is a volatile parent, or inconsistent parental support that interferes with basic needs, the child’s attention will be on these things, and will not be available for lessons.


In a similar way, the mind can produce perceived danger, in the form of anxiety, or rage, or depression, whereby the importance of external events is distorted by the perceived intensity, or the actual intensity, of these emotional messages. The child who has been beaten or neglected registers the adult as a source of danger, even when they may not be actively threatening. The child’s vigilance is increased, and danger is perceived where it does not exist. This is a feature of post traumatic stress disorder, suffered by military personnel on their return to civilian life from the war zone. I read recently about a veteran who was provided with a service dog that would go ahead to the end of the isle at the grocery store to assure their safety, because otherwise the soldier would expect an attack every time they rounded the end of the aisle.


We begin with the environment and our bodies producing two sources of information that we must coordinate and navigate. But our memory of experiences creates thoughts that are another source of information, another type of event in another “environment” – that of our mind. For some of us, our mind generates many thoughts – we are creative, perhaps, or we are anxious and we replay thoughts about possible worrisome scenarios in the future, or we are depressed and we replay ruminative thoughts about the past.


In a safe environment, when our basic needs are met, we can afford to think. The development of civilization paralleled the production of food; only when we had enough so that we could stop worrying about it, could we begin to imagine and build cities. In a classroom, the teacher must create events that are of interest to the students. Some students are attentive because they are intimidated by the authority of the adult, and thus are motivated to comply. But many students are attentive to their internal world, and the challenge is to make the lesson more compelling than the movie they are watching in their head, or around them in the room. I have worked with many kindergartners or preschoolers who, after being very excited to start going to school, after watching an older sibling perhaps, or hearing of the wonderful adventure school will be from a parent, have been hugely disappointed by their actual experience. These are the children who are spontaneously entertained by their own ideas, in their own environment, and can think of many things to do that are more interesting than what their teacher is asking them to do. Bummer!


So in order to really understand problems with attention, we have to understand what the process of attention is in the brain, what function it serves, and how it operates. It is the Affective system – the system that attaches emotional valence, positive or negative, and therefore importance, to events and information in the environment – whether external, internal, or virtual – from the mind. Unless we understand that the brain is wired up such that it is impossible to attend to something that is not in some way more important that the other things going on, the competing events, thoughts, worries, the “distractions.”


The human brain has developed a complex and elegant system for calculating the importance of information and events, in order to determine which we focus our attention on, and which we filter out, or ignore. Despite our lofty self-impression of ourselves as “intelligent” creatures, the brain gives priority to the lower level systems that we share with other animals, and that are designed to detect and respond to events that are relevant to our survival – opportunities to get our needs met (food, safety, procreation) and avoid danger. When things go wrong, as in addiction, or in trauma, when neutral or even harmful events are assigned a “necessary for survival” value, or a “threat to survival” value, attention, decision-making and behavior go haywire.


We need to understand that the higher-level processes, the ones that go on in our cerebral cortex, such as new learning or memory, language, reasoning, are trumped by lower level processes, and that it is only when our needs– physical and emotional – are met that our brains can work at their optimal level.   We understand the feeling of being over-stimulated, that there is too much information, too many events, competing for our attention. We can almost feel our brains yelling, “Stop! I can’t handle this!” This, my friend, is what we call stress.


The evolution of our brains has not kept up, understandably, with the development of our physical environment and our culture. We must develop our own system for assigning priority to things based on an artificial value or emotional valence. We do this with rewards and punishments. Our paycheck becomes equivalent to “food and shelter,” and so we are attentive to the alarm clock, the train schedule, and the calendar, and get ourselves to work. Our tasks at work, the requests of our supervisor, get our attention because of their relationship to our paycheck, and so on. But sometimes, our health or other personal problems become a stronger pull than even the paycheck, and we have trouble paying attention to, and directing our behavior effectively toward, these things.


What about the young child? How do we make things important for them? This is the key to good teaching and good parenting. We can intimidate them and we can spoil them, threatening and bribing on a daily basis. But the success of these methods is not sustainable. It takes more thought and effort, though, to make the information and events we are asking them to attend to richly entertaining, so they give pleasure, or personally relevant to their interests, so they give pleasure, or stepping stones to activities and competencies that are intrinsically rewarding to the child, like freedom and responsibility, so that they function like the paycheck, earning the child other things that they care about.


But we also routinely underestimate the anxiety, the sadness, the longing for love and attention, or even for food and safety, that many children are haunted by, and distracted by, every day. If we do nothing else for our school children, heaping them with love and attention, positive interpersonal interactions, engaging but not overwhelming sensory experiences, and freedom to explore the environment with as much or as little guidance as they need, we will have given them a tremendous leg up in life. Then their cerebral cortex can go crazy learning and thinking and wondering. Only when their basic physical and emotional needs are met, and the activities we are asking them to participate in are safe, meaningful, and in some way rewarding, will they be able to pay attention.