How Brains Focus Our Concentration

How Brains Focus Our Concentration
A study released in 2011 by the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) was designed to examine how the brain is able to maintain focus. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gain insight into what happened when test subjects were given stimuli. Two types of stimuli were explored. Using one type of stimuli, people were given one prompt to focus on. The other type of stimuli had subjects split their concentration among several triggers.

These two types of stimuli were used to examine hypotheses about the brain’s use of “efficient selection” and “sensitivity enhancement.” What do these terms mean? Efficient selection is when the brain chooses the most important information and ignores that which isn’t necessary at the time. Signals related to the important information are passed on, while the non-essential information is ignored by the mind. With sensitivity enhancement, signals that process sensory information (sight, sound, colors, touch, and taste) are magnified by the neurons that are linked to the cortex. The researchers wanted to know which of these hypotheses were most likely to be linked to being able to focus in the modern world.

After taking data using the fMRI, then using mathematical modeling, the researchers believe that efficient selection is the most important factor in focusing. The brain needs to attend to relevant information while suppressing that which is not relevant to the situation that is occurring. How difficult is this in our modern society?

Our perception and focus are challenged by stimuli that disrupt our ability to focus. The most egregious offenders in modern life are the sensory stimuli that have high levels of contrast. This would include loud noises and bright or flashing lights. Focus can also be disrupted by pain or pleasure and intense smells.

Think about your life. What impediments to focus do you have? Right now, the attic fan is rumbling. The parrots are providing that high contrast stimuli with their chirps, screeches, and songs. One of our lovebird girls is trying to break out of her cage and is pulling on a bar. It makes an intermittent and loud, “Thrung, twang, throng.” Music is drifting in from elsewhere in the house. Every once in a while, a video game blasts, followed by explosive laughter. Under all of the noises, the toads are singing in the pond. Your life is different, with diverse sights and sounds that are highly distracting. The result is a lack of focus, unless your brain can decide on what is most important and push everything else to the back of your mind.

RIKEN. "How our brains keep us focused."ScienceDaily, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

Abstract: Enhancement of Perceived Visual Intensity by Auditory Stimuli: A Psychophysical Analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Web. 28 Apr. 2013 (There are numerous studies mentioned that cited this 1996 study.)

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