Tag Archives: Attention

Feedback and setting goals are keystones of keeping us motivated and on-task

While goal-setting can help us keep focused and productive with tasks, receiving feedback is much more effective, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Everyone has, at one point in their lives, lost motivation for a project they were initially keen on. If you’re the exception, I envy you. But a new paper holds some clues about how we all could have an easier time staying motivated and on the task at hand. According to the findings, receiving feedback in conjunction with reaching individual goals can go a very long way towards keeping us focused and involved with tasks or projects.

The findings can help employers keep their employees happier and more productive, but can also help us in our personal lives.

How to keep at it

“Sustaining one’s attention is notoriously difficult. The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be,” said Matthew Robison, University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study. “If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.”

Having a roadmap of several goals is an effective way to keep us involved with tasks over a longer period of time. Mixing feedback into that process, however, can produce an even more powerful effect, according to new research.

The study involved four rounds of experiments during which participants were asked to perform a simple but attention-intensive task for 30 minutes at a time. Across these different experiments, the researchers tracked how effective three approaches were at increasing the participants’ ability to sustain attention on the task at hand. These approaches were goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations. After each experiment, participants were asked to provide commentary on how motivated and alert they were during the tasks, and to rate their attention levels as either ‘on-task’, ‘wandering’, or ‘absent’.

The first experiment involved task-setting. The results show that having a specific goal in mind helped improve the participants’ ability to sustain their attention over time but didn’t influence their engagement with the task. Task engagement was defined as having higher motivation and lower levels of thoughts unrelated to it.

During the second experiment, the researchers split the task into several time blocks and gave participants feedback at the end of each. The results here showed that the participants had a greater ability to maintain attention and felt greater motivation to complete the task. Feedback, even by itself, was also effective at limiting task-unrelated thoughts, the authors explain.

Incentives by themselves did little to increase either task engagement or performance, they add. Some of the incentives offered to participants during the third step of the study included cash bonuses or early release from the experiment, to mimic the same types of incentives employees are likely to be offered at work.

That being said, participants showed a decline in performance over time during all three experimental stages. As they spent more time with the task, all participants reported feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and that they had a harder time keeping their minds from wandering.

“Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding,” Robison said.

So why are these findings important? It pays to keep in mind that, as humans, we have a set of cognitive limitations that we are forced to work with. This is especially important in settings where constant attention is required, such as for lifeguards or air traffic monitoring. Although important events in such fields are rare, the need for constant vigilance does take a sizable toll on workers, and it can push their attention beyond the limits that individuals can feasibly maintain.

“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time,” Robison said. “It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”

The paper “Examining the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentives on sustained attention” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Researchers pinpoint the brain area that ultimately governs attention and focus

New research from MIT reports that the abilities to curb impulses and to ignore distractions are independent but ultimately controlled by the same area of the brain.

LC neurons identified by the marker tyrosine hydroxylase (magenta) engineered via a virus to express the ChR2 proteins (green) which allows stimulation with a blue laser. Image credits Tonegawa Lab / MIT Picower Institute.

You won’t get far in life without the ability to pay attention to and focus on what you’re doing. So if you’re having a hard time doing that, at least now you know what’s to blame — the locus coeruleus (LC). According to a new study, norepinephrine-producing neurons in this brain region control the areas of the prefrontal cortex that allow us to focus,  ignore distractions or curb impulses.

Eyes on the prize

“Our results demonstrate a fundamental causal role of LC neuronal activation in the implementation of attentional control by the selective modulation of neural activity in its target areas,” the authors write.

The role norepinephrine-producing LC neurons might have in controlling attention and focus in mammals has been hinted at in the past, but the evidence has always been correlative at best. The team’s findings establish a cause-effect relationship between the two, after they used optogenetics to activate them specifically in mice engaged in three attentional control tasks. This in turn impacted the mice’s performance “immediately and reliably”.

The results could help us better understand and treat disorders that impact attention control or either of its two components — such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Patients with ADHD are both easily distracted and prone to impulsive behavior, but in many cases, one of these components is more heavily expressed. Lead author Andrea Bari explains that they may also help in understanding the LC’s role in anxiety, as the stimulation they administered to the mice during the experiment seemed to lower their anxiety levels.

After engineering the mice’s LC neurons to respond with activity to different colors of light, the team tested what their activation actually does. First, they had the animals wait seven seconds, after which a half-second signal light indicated one of two portals they should go through to find a treat. Mice whose LC activity was stimulated performed the task correctly more often and made fewer premature moves than when not manipulated. Mice whose LC neurons were inhibited performed tasks incorrectly (i.e. they missed the signal) and made more premature moves.

The second experiment involved a three-second signal light identifying the correct portal, which was preceded by a “cue flash”. Sometimes that cue would be on the opposite side, sometimes be in the middle and sometimes be on the correct side. LC stimulation helped improve the performance of the mice involved and made them less impulsive — on the other hand, LC inhibition reduced their correctness and made them more impulsive. Inhibited mice also showed much greater variations in reaction time because they were easily distracted by the cue. They reacted much slower than average when the cue was on the wrong side, and faster than average when the cue was on the correct side.

In the third task, the mice were sometimes presented with constant distraction by (irrelevant) lights while waiting for a three-second signal showing where the food is. The results reproduced previous findings, with one key exception: in cases where these distractor lights weren’t on, inhibited-LC mice did not lapse in performing the task correctly (they only had issues when the distracting lights were turned on).

Finally, based on previous research, the team also controlled for LC activity and norepinephrine release in two brain areas known as the dorsomedial PFC (dmPFC) and the ventrolateral orbitofrontal cortex (vlOFC), where the LC connects to the front area of the brain. Stimulating the LC connections into dmPFC increased correct performance but did not reduce premature responses. Stimulating those in the vlOFC did not improve correct performance but did reduce premature responses.

“Here we have applied behavioral, optogenetic, and neural circuit genetic techniques [to] demonstrate a causal link between temporal-specific LC norepinephrine modulation and attentional control,” the authors wrote. “Our results reveal that the attentional control of behavior is modulated by the synergistic effects of two dissociable coeruleo-cortical pathways, with LC projections to dmPFC enhancing attention and LC projections to vlOFC reducing impulsivity.”

The paper has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


First reliable evidence for ‘social acceleration’ comes from our shorter collective attention spans

Our collective attention span is narrowing across domains such as social media, books, movies, and more.


Measuring the speed of hashtag dynamics: Average trajectories in top 50 Twitter hashtags from 2013 to 2016. In the background a 1% random sample of trajectories is shown in grey.
Image credits Philipp Lorenz-Spreen et al., (2019), N.Comms.

If public discussion strikes you as more fragmented and accelerated than ever before, new research says you’re not wrong. Sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from a ‘fear of missing out’, keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7 for years now — but very few reliable data has been recorded on the subject of ‘social acceleration’.

However, a new study from the Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, University College Cork, and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has found evidence in support of one dimension of social acceleration: increasing rates of change within collective attention spans.

Give me new, please

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example.” says corresponding author Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute.

The team used Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books going back 100 years on Google Books, movie ticket sales over the last 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. This dataset was further fleshed-out using data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).

Analysis of this data provided the first empirical body of evidence showing steeper gradients and shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item over time. This is fueled by the ever-increasing production and consumption of content, the team explains, which more rapidly depletes collective attention resources.

The team says this dynamic isn’t only seen in social media. The researchers looked at the top 50 global hashtags on Twitter, finding that peaks become increasingly steep and frequent. In 2013, for example, a hashtag could enjoy its place in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours; it gradually declined to just 11.9 hours in 2016. Other domains, both online and offline, saw similar trends over different periods. For instance, the team reports that occurence of certain n-grams —  sequences of words, where word number (n) is between 1 and 5 — and weekly box-office sales of Hollywood movies in the US follow the same pattern as hashtags.

“We assume that whenever a topic is discussed (hashtags on Twitter, comments on Reddit, n-grams in books, citations of papers) or consumed (tickets for movies, queries on Google), it receives a small fraction of the available attention,” the paper reads.

One area seems to be exempt from this dwindling of attention spans, however: scientific content, such as journals or Wikipedia. The team isn’t exactly sure why this is, however, they believe it comes down to these being primarily knowledge communication systems.

“We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behavior. Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: ‘hotness’, aging and the thirst for something new.” says Dr. Philipp Hövel, lecturer for applied mathematics, University College Cork.

All in all, the team found that “the one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate” or abundance of information. When more content is produced in less time, it drains collective attention resources faster. This shortened peak of public interest for one topic is then directly followed by the next topic, because of the fierce competition for novelty.

To sum it up, our individual attention span wasn’t the subject of this study. The collective amount of attention isn’t any smaller than it used to be. However, there’s simply much more to pay attention to, and the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something new happening and lose interest more quickly.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” says postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

“Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape

That it does, study, that it does.

The team hopes that their findings will help communities design better communication systems, to ensure that information quality doesn’t erode under its own sheer bulk.

The paper “Accelerating dynamics of collective attention” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Music baby.

Musical training makes your brain better at paying attention

Musical training won’t just make you cool at get-togethers — it also gives you better control and focus over your attention, new research reports.

Music baby.

Image via Pixabay.

Individuals who train in music see lasting improvements in the cognitive mechanisms that make us more attentive and harder to distract, the study reports. Trained musicians exhibit greater executive control of attention (a main component of the attentional system) than non-musicians, it explains, and this effect increases the longer they train in music.

Professional advantage

“Our study investigated the effects of systematic musical training on the main components of the attentional system. Our findings demonstrate greater inhibitory attentional control abilities in musicians than non-musicians,” explained lead investigator, Paulo Barraza, PhD, Center for Advanced Research in Education, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile.

“Professional musicians are able to more quickly and accurately respond to and focus on what is important to perform a task, and more effectively filter out incongruent and irrelevant stimuli than non-musicians. In addition, the advantages are enhanced with increased years of training.”

Our attention is made up of three types of functions: alerting, orienting, and executive control. The alerting function is associated with maintaining states of readiness for action. The orienting function is linked to the selection of sensory information and change of attentional focus. The executive control function is involved both in the suppression of irrelevant, distracting stimuli and in top-down attentional control. Each is handled by an anatomically-distinct neural network, the team writes.

For the study, the team worked with 18 professional pianists and a matched group of 18 non-musician professional adults, whom they ran through an attentional network test. The musician group consisted of full-time conservatory students or conservatory graduates from Conservatories of the Universidad de Chile, Universidad Mayor de Chile, and Universidad Austral de Chile. On average, participants in this group had over 12 years of practice. “Non-musicians” were university students or graduates who had not had formal music lessons and could not play or read music.

The participants were asked to view a series of rapidly-changing images and provide immediate feedback on what they were being shown to test the efficiency of their reactive behavior. On average, the musician group had a score of 43.84 milliseconds (ms) for alerting functions, 43.70 ms for orienting, and 53.83 ms for executive functions, the team reports. For non-musicians, the mean scores were 41.98 ms, 51.56 ms, and 87.19 ms, respectively. The higher scores show less efficient inhibitory attentional control (i.e. a poorer control of attention).

The authors say their results point to musical training having a lasting (and beneficial) effect on attention networks that previous research didn’t spot.

“Our findings of the relationship between musical training and improvement of attentional skills could be useful in clinical or educational fields, for instance, in strengthening the ability of ADHD individuals to manage distractions or the development of school programs encouraging the development of cognitive abilities through the deliberate practice of music,” says noted co-author David Medina, from the Department of Music, Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences, Santiago, Chile.

“Future longitudinal research should directly address these interpretations.”

The paper ” Efficiency of attentional networks in musicians and non-musicians” has been published in the journal Heliyon.

Cat paying attention.

Paying attention shuts down ‘brain noise’ that isn’t related to what we’re looking for

New research sheds light into what our brains do as we try to pay attention to something.

Cat paying attention.

It seems that the price for paying attention is missing the big picture.
Image via Pixabay.

Attention has long been believed to function by turning down brain ‘noise’ — in other words, it amplifies the activity of some neurons while suppressing others. A new study comes to confirm this view by showing how too much background brain noise can interrupt focused attention and cause the brain to struggle to perceive objects.

Divert energy to attention circuits!

“This study informs us about how information is encoded in the electrical circuits in the brain,” says Salk Professor John Reynolds, senior author of the paper. “When a stimulus appears before us, this activates a population of neurons that are selective for that stimulus.”

“Layered on top of that stimulus-evoked response are large, low-frequency fluctuations in neural activity.”

It’s laughably easy to miss something you’re not looking for. You’re probably aware of the gorilla experiment / selective attention test (if not, here it is). In short, when most people were asked to pay attention to two groups of people — one in black clothes, the other in white clothes — passing a ball among them and count the number of times this ball passed from one group to the other, they became oblivious to a man dressed as a gorilla walking among the players.

More than just being funny, the experiment shows how our brains can ignore visual information when it isn’t relevant to a certain task we’re trying to perform. However, this process governing our perception and ability to pay attention to our surroundings is poorly understood. In an effort to patch this blind spot in our knowledge, the team set out to find whether background neural activity can interrupt focused attention, and cause our brains to struggle with perceiving certain objects.

Previous work from Reynolds’ lab found that when attention is directed upon a certain stimulus, low-frequency neural fluctuations (brain noise) is suppressed. The findings also suggested that not filtering out these fluctuations should impair our perception and ability to pay attention.

To find whether this is the case, the team used optogenetics — a technique that can activate or inactivate neurons by shining lasers onto light-activated proteins. They directed a low-frequency laser to the visual brain regions in animals in order to replicate brain noise. Then, they measured how this impacted the animals’ ability to detect a small change in the orientation of objects shown on a computer screen.

As predicted, the induced brain noise impaired the animals’ perception compared to controls. The team then repeated the experiment using a different laser-burst pattern to induce high-frequency fluctuations (a frequency that attention, as far as we know, doesn’t suppress). Consistent with their initial theory, this had no effect on the animals’ perception.

“This is the first time this theoretical idea that increased background noise can hurt perception has been tested,” says first and corresponding author Anirvan Nandy, assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and former Salk researcher. “We’ve confirmed that attention does operate largely by suppressing this coordinated neuron firing activity.”

“This work opens a window into the neural code, and will become part of our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying perception. A deeper understanding of the neural language of perception will be critical in building visual prosthetics,” Reynolds adds.

The team plans to examine how different types of cells in the visual networks of the brain take part in this process. Hopefully, this will give us a better idea of the neurological processes that govern attention and perception.

The paper “Optogenetically induced low-frequency correlations impair perception” has been published in the journal eLife.


Your brain pays more attention to objects it knows are small — no matter how large they seem

The size of an object determines how much attention our brain is willing to allocate to it. However, it’s not how the perceived size of an object that counts, rather how large our brains know them to be from experience.


Image via Pixabay.

Researchers from the George Washington University (GWU) say that object size is a key factor our brain takes into account when doling out attention. The findings, they say, could pave the way for special training to enable people to better notice certain objects — such as tumors on a radiology plate or hidden items in luggage.

Size does matter

“Since a person can only pay attention to a limited amount of information at a time, our brain uses object size to determine how much attention to allocate to that object,” says Sarah Shomstein, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and paper co-author.

“However, the way our eyes perceive an object can be different from its actual size, such as a car appearing large when it is close and small when it is far. Our study has shown for the first time that the brain adjusts attention based on our knowledge of an object’s size, not how our eyes view it.”

For the study, Dr. Shomstein and her team showed participants images of several everyday items (of various sizes in real life). These items, however — ranging from domino blocks to whole billiards tables — were shown at the same fixed size in all photographs. The team also added ‘probe targets’ in each image. What they wanted to see was how long it took participants to find these targets within each image.

Smaller real-world objects elicited a quicker response than larger ones across the board — even though they occupied the same amount of space in the participants’ eyes. Dr. Shomstein says that this happens because the participants’ previous knowledge of object size overruled their perceived size. Because of this, their brains automatically adjusted how much attention each item received (which, in turn, made it easier or more difficult to spot the targets).

“If objects are of identical size on your eye, but you know that one of them is smaller — such as a domino nearby versus a pool table far away — you allocate more attention to the smaller item,” she explains

The team then showed participants images of everyday items and asked them to rate their size on a scale of one to six (“one” being very small and “six” being very large). The results here showed there’s a direct correlation between how participants rated the size of each object and the time it took them to respond to target stimuli within the image.

“Your own personal ratings determine how efficient you are going to be at attending to that object,” says co-author Andrew J. Collegio. “If you think the pool table is really large, then your attention is going to be less focused.”

The team hopes these findings will help us better understand how people process particular objects as they pay attention to the world around them. In the long run, they add, these findings may ever point the way to new training avenues that would improve people’s ability to pay attention to certain items in different contexts.

The paper “Attention scales according to inferred real-world object size” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.